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Kimchi and the wonder of fermented foods

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

What do kombucha, miso, yogurt and sauerkraut all have in common? Well, they taste delicious, and they're good for your gut - all thanks to the process of fermentation. NPR's Pien Huang breaks it down for our series, Weekly Dose of Wonder.

PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: I love fermented foods. I love that you can leave something out on the counter, in the fridge, forget about it even, and it just gets better. I wanted to know how that happens. So early one morning in Washington, D.C., I go to meet chef Patrice Cunningham.

Good morning.

PATRICE CUNNINGHAM: Good morning. Welcome. So this is a shared commercial kitchen. So we kind of basically come in and kind of get - fit in where we can.

HUANG: She owns a small business, making and selling one of my favorite fermented foods, kimchi. It's a fresh, spicy Korean condiment made from a pretty basic vegetable. Right now, the large steel prep table is covered with boxes and boxes of cabbage.

CUNNINGHAM: I'm turning cabbage into gold.

HUANG: She and her staff chop the cabbage into bite-sized pieces. It's the first step in transforming the raw and humble cabbage into bright red bites of funky, fermented kimchi.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNIFE CHOPPING CABBAGE)

CUNNINGHAM: Yeah, how many boxes do we have left?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: No boxes. No more boxes. We're done (laughter).

HUANG: Kimchi has always been a part of Patrice's life. As a child, she made it with her mom. But she hadn't planned to make a living from it until the pandemic happened and she lost her job as a chef. Patrice wondered what to do next, and then an old idea came back to her.

CUNNINGHAM: I remember eating her kimchi and being like, my mom's kimchi is the best. You can't find this anywhere.

HUANG: So three years ago, she started her kimchi-making company. She's selling at farmers markets, but she's got big plans.

CUNNINGHAM: We'll cross that bridge later. Right now, I'm salting.

HUANG: Cabbage leaves, like many other living things, are naturally covered in tiny yeasts and bacteria. When the cabbage gets harvested and chopped, these microbes start eating it, start fermenting it. In the kitchen, Chef Patrice helps the process by covering the cabbage with a salty brine.

CUNNINGHAM: My mom did the measurements for me, so there's really no method to this madness other than this being her recipe, OK? So she says 8 cups, I do 8 cups (laughter). And the kimchi comes out great.

HUANG: She pours the brine into big plastic tubs filled to the brim with chopped cabbage.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRINE POURING)

CUNNINGHAM: In four hours, it'll be halfway. It just all kind of shrinks.

HUANG: So here's what's happening. The salt draws water out of the cabbage leaves, breaking down cell walls, and that releases sugars that feed the kimchi-making microbes. I called up fermentation professor Victor Ujor at the University of Wisconsin. He loves fermentation, and he loves talking about microbes.

VICTOR UJOR: So I think they are such beautiful things.

HUANG: He says the microbes are breaking these complex sugars and starches into simple nutrients with great precision.

UJOR: You have something like starch that contains 15,000 molecules of sugar, and they go snip, snip, snip, snip, snip, snip, snip into individual sugars. Then they take the glucose - boom - break it down.

HUANG: The results, he says...

UJOR: This wacky, beautiful jumble of taste and flavor and beauty.

HUANG: To get the right ferment, you need the right temperature conditions.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLIANCES WHIRRING)

HUANG: It's early the next day and Chef Patrice is back in the kitchen, but there's a problem.

CUNNINGHAM: Because it's hot in here. It's so hot in here.

HUANG: It's probably around 85 degrees. If it gets much hotter, harmful bacteria could start to grow. Patrice and her team work fast. They put on pink rubber gloves up to their elbows and massage a gooey, spicy red pepper paste into the cabbage. The sound of it stirs up childhood memories of making kimchi with her mom.

CUNNINGHAM: 'Cause it would be, like, a hot summer day, and my mom would be in the backyard. And you can just hear the squeakiness, like, of you rubbing all the ingredients in the clean cabbage.

(SOUNDBITE OF CABBAGE SQUEAKING)

CUNNINGHAM: Every time I hear it, it brings back those memories. So very cool.

(SOUNDBITE OF KIMCHI SQUISHING)

HUANG: And all the while, these microbes keep working, turning sugars into lactic acid, and that will keep the food from spoiling for a long time.

Ujor, from the University of Wisconsin, says those hardworking microbes are doing a lot.

UJOR: They don't talk back at you. They don't yell. They do all that work. And they even die doing it. And all that put together is just beautiful.

HUANG: You know, I've never appreciated the microbes that way, but I have enjoyed their results - that savory, umami-rich crunch of kimchi.

CUNNINGHAM: There you go - still need a little bit of touch more salt.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOWL BEING SCRAPED)

HUANG: Back in the kitchen, Patrice offers me a sample from the batch.

CUNNINGHAM: Yummy?

HUANG: It's delicious. I love it. It's, like, spicy. It's, like, really got, like, a good kick to it.

CUNNINGHAM: That's it. Yep.

HUANG: Thanks, microbes.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HUANG: Pien Huang, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Pien Huang is a health reporter on the Science desk. She was NPR's first Reflect America Fellow, working with shows, desks and podcasts to bring more diverse voices to air and online.