Preserve Your Culture in Live Cultures: Fermentation as an Heirloom

Preserve Your Culture in Live Cultures: Fermentation as an Heirloom

For as long as I can recall, my Sindhi family never spoke about heirlooms passed down to us from ancestors who had to migrate to post-partition India from present day Pakistan. There was no chest of drawers with traditional carpentry, no box of jewellery or treasure trove of traditional North Indian clothing handed down over generations. Nevertheless, my Sindhi heritage lived and breathed in jars of lemon pickle, onion pickle and red carrot pickle –recipes as seasonal as they were specific to the villages my ancestors hailed from. Fermentation was our only heirloom, preserving a live culture within a microcosm of a culture that has long been teetering on the edge of oblivion. While there was no tangible mother ‘pickle’ – akin to the mother dough that births multiple sourdough starters  – there was at least a recipe handed down. Can fermentation be a vehicle of keeping heirlooms alive in the form of seasonal ferments?

When I first met The Ferm’s founder Rebecca Ghim, she and I instantly bonded over the impending need to decolonise food systems and something that we both agreed on was that local food products needed to be championed in the context of their respective cultural heritages. If you’re at all familiar with The Ferm, then you know that this East London business produces some of the best low-waste, artisan kimchi that is inspired by Rebecca’s family’s recipe. Her kimchi and jangaji ferments are capturing her grandmother’s recipe in the most tangible form there could be without giving in to the pressures of a homogenised market. The Ferm doesn’t compromise on the flavour, the probiotics or the processes that make its kimchi unique to the Ghim family. 

After all, South Korea is home to 200 different types of kimchi with further bifurcations on the basis of ingredients, geographical factors, flavours and serving techniques to name a few. The sheer diversity of kimchi makes it a matter of national pride for Koreans to the point that they celebrate kimjang every autumn. Kimjang is an annual event wherein communities come together all throughout South Korea to partake in a communal preparation of kimchi in bulk to last all winter. This tradition not only helps bring people together but also allows families to pass on their recipes to younger generations. Additionally, it cements the connection between kimchi and the national identity of Koreans, ensuring that it will remain equally important for the next generation that wants to make kimchi out of any seasonal produce. How different would our society be if every country had its own version of kimjang where people come together to preserve their harvest and their heritage?

Sandor Katz, fermentation revivalist and author of multiple bestselling books on fermentation, has long spoken about fermentation being a form of activism and especially so in this interview following the publication of his book, Fermentation as Metaphor. When we choose to take the time to make something in a global economy that relies on instant gratification, convenience and processed foods, we are disrupting the capitalistic model of food production and giving agency to ourselves and to what we consume. So if fermenting your own vegetables, grains or fish is an act of activism, then championing regional or family recipes adds an extra layer to this radical act. 

Sandor also mentions in the interview that in times of fast-paced lunches, having a fermented jar of something or the other to add on top of any basic meal can elevate it and provide more nutrients than the best microwavable meal on the planet. I can recall numerous times when The Ferm’s kimchi has brought my pasta, my risotto and my rice to life. The sharp bite of cauliflower leaf kimchi blends in smoothly with leftover rice that is stained bright red by gochugaru and gochujang who make their fiery presence known on my palate. The sharp tang of kimchi contrasts the plain rice and the simplicity of this meal ignited a desire that has culminated in fermenting my own cucumber and radish kimchi. I am no longer a cog, in fact I’m not even in the machine with my growing collection of home-made and locally-sourced ferments. 

The longevity of most ferments also makes it an ideal heirloom to pass on. Kefir grains can easily live forever as long as you look after them while scoby used for brewing kombucha renews itself every time it’s used. I remember watching an episode of an American sitcom, Brooklyn 99 wherein one of the character’s grandmother had passed away and had left his cousin a jar of the sourdough starter of their family’s favourite sourdough bread recipe that ensued a battle between the cousins to secure the starter for themselves. This certainly beats fighting over land and money when all you want at the end of the day is to eat a slice of sourdough bread where the butter melts and pools in all the holes, something to remind you of memories shared with loved ones past and present. My great-grandmother’s black lime pickle can last up to five years. In the past five years, so many different aspects of my life have changed but what has remained consistent is the black lime pickle added to a steaming hot bowl of lentils and rice reminding me to slow down and to appreciate this glimpse of my great-grandmother. 

I have taken to pickle-making only recently to recreate the stories I’ve heard of traditional Sindhi households wherein women in the community would come together to prepare pickles and sun-dry fresh harvests. I am now joined by my mother and grandmother, and through my great-grandmother’s recipe, we are able to partake in a small-scale Sindhi kimjang of our own which will hopefully continue for generations to come. In my chest of drawers, my progeny will find recipes to my great-grandmother’s pickles, my favourite types of kimchi, beetroot kvass, fermented garlic honey and more; heirlooms wishing them (gut) health and happiness. 


Harshita Lalwani is a food writer and marketer with a background in book publishing. She runs a monthly Substack newsletter called Sindhi with a Dash of Hindi to increase awareness about Sindhi cuisine. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram.

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