Fermented Grain Recipes from Around the World

Saturday, June 5, 2010
In my last two posts on grains, I described how traditional food processing methods make grains more nutritious and digestible (1, 2). I promised to briefly describe a few recipes from around the world, then got distracted by other things. Here they are.

Africa: Ogi

Grain fermentation is widespread in Africa and is probably nearly as old as agriculture on the continent. The nutritional importance of fermentation is suggested by the amount of time and effort that many African cultures put into it, when they could save themselves a lot of trouble by simply soaking and cooking their grains.

Ogi is a common West African porridge that's eaten as a staple food by people of all ages. It's even used as a weaning food. It's made in essentially the same manner from corn, sorghum or millet.

Whole grain is soaked in water for one to three days. It's then wet milled, mixed with water and sieved to remove a portion of the bran. Extra bran is fed to animals, while the white, starchy sediment is fermented for two to three days. This is then cooked into a thin or thick porridge and eaten.

South America: Pozol

At first glance, some people may think I left the 'e' off the word 'pozole', a traditional Mexican stew. However, pozol is an entirely different beast, an ancient food almost totally unknown in the US, but which fueled the Mayan empire and remains a staple food in Southeastern Mexico.

To make pozol, first the corn must be 'nixtamalized': whole kernels are boiled in a large volume of water with calcium hydroxide (10% w/v). This is a processing step in most traditional South American corn recipes, as it allows a person to avoid pellagra (niacin deficiency)! The loosened bran is removed from the kernels by hand.

The kernels are then ground into dough, formed into balls and placed into banana leaves to ferment for one to 14 days. Following fermentation, pozol is diluted in water and consumed raw.

Europe: Sourdough Bread

Sourdough bread is Europe's quintessential fermented grain food. Before purified yeast strains came into widespread use in the 20th century, all bread would have been some form of sourdough.

Although in my opinion wheat is problematic for many people, sourdough fermentation renders it more nutritious and better tolerated by those with gluten/wheat sensitivity. In an interesting series of studies, Dr. Marco Gobbetti's group, among others, has shown that fermentation partially degrades gluten, explaining the ability of fermentation to decrease the adverse effects of gluten in those who are sensitive to it (3). They even showed that people with celiac disease can safely eat wheat bread that has been long-fermented with selected bacteria and yeasts under laboratory conditions (4). Rye contains about half the gluten of bread wheat, and is generally nutritionally superior to wheat, so sourdough rye is a better choice in my opinion.

To make sourdough bread, first the dry grains are ground into flour. Next, the flour is sifted through a screen to remove a portion of the bran. The earliest bread eaters probably didn't do this, although there is evidence of the wealthy eating sifted flour in societies as old as ancient Egypt and ancient Rome. I don't know what the optimum amount of bran to include in flour is, but it's not zero. I would be inclined to keep at least half of it, recognizing that the bran is disproportionately rich in nutrients.

Next, a portion of flour is mixed with water and a "sourdough starter", until it has a runny consistency. The starter is a diverse culture of bacteria and yeast that is carefully maintained by the bread maker. This culture acidifies the batter and produces carbon dioxide gas. The mixture is allowed to ferment for 8-12 hours. Finally, flour and salt are added to the batter and formed into dough balls. These are allowed to ferment and rise for a few hours, then baked.

My Experience

I've tried making ogi (millet) and pozol, and I have to admit that neither attempt was successful. Pozol in particular may depend on local populations of bacteria and yeast, as the grains' microorganisms are killed during processing. However, I do eat fermented grains regularly in the form of homemade brown rice 'uthappam' and sourdough buckwheat 'crepes'. The buckwheat crepes are tasty and easy to make. I'll post a recipe at some point.

The first two recipes are from the FAO publication Fermented Cereals: a Global Perspective (5).