A common criticism I hear of vegan food is that it’s bland, unexciting. It’s flavour profile can be flat, and so while one might eat to be satisfied nutritionally and physically, you can’t help but be left wanting more. Somewhat begrudgingly, I can see a point here, even with my love of veggies and part-time vegan diet..! It’s not ‘more’ in terms of indulgence, but ‘more’ in terms of intensity and complexity of flavour, and of satiating deliciousness.
Undeniably, outstandingly good seasonal produce can knock ones socks off: a handful of cherry tomatoes from the market still warm from the sun have unbeatable flavour. Yet concocting genuinely exciting whole dishes with richness and complexity, day in and day out, with an entirely plant-based diet is challenging…
Challenging, but certainly not impossible! And here’s where I believe fermentation comes in. And with all guns blazing. With a little salt, time, and microbial activity humble raw vegetables are entirely transformed, and so to is a plant-based larder, for even the most unassuming of ferments offer a beguiling complexity of flavour. The wholly satisfying eating experience of some spiced fermented cauliflower, for example, rustled into a salad with a little brown rice and baby spinach, with ferment liquor and a drizzle of oil acting as dressing, belies the few seconds it takes or the humbled ingredients within. So, so much more than the sum of its parts.
Taking part in “Veganuary” this year showed me how powerful that distinctive tang of lactic acid bacteria is - that grown-up savoury smack - in transforming any fridge–forage salad or quick stir-fry from the basic to the complex. In their essence, fermented foods, whether whole vegetables or condiments, are flavour enhancers and, for me, vegan cooking’s closest ally; ‘adorners of plainer foods’, writes Katz, the definitive voice on fermentation. David Chang, of Momofuku also identifies fermentation as the key to good vegan cooking, citing a chickpea cheese which took over a year to make as the tastiest thing he has ever cooked!
Beyond enhancing simple vegan suppers at home, my foray into fermentation (or newfound obsession!), has enhanced my vegcentric cooking, so I'm told! I can say this without conceit for the handiwork isn’t mine, but that of armies of microbes taking on the bulk of the flavour work - and delivering in spades! It’s something that supper-club guests have responded to hugely, remarking on the amount of flavour packed into veggie dishes, which is music to my ears.
Nick Balfe of Salon and I are planning a vegcentric collaboration in August; the dishes on our menu will be adorned and enhanced with fermented touches, bringing out the best in those seasonal veggies. More information over on events here.