Chef Jeff Kang on Fermentation and the Global Sourdough Obsession

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Whether it’s sauerkraut, soy sauce or sourdough, fermented foods have always been part of the human diet. But in 2020, the process achieved cult status and took over social media.

It’s for good reason that the #sourdough hashtag turns up nearly 4 million times on Instagram: A global dry yeast shortage in the first months of the Covid-19 pandemic led home bakers to turn to other options, including sourdough, a bread that uses a starter of flour and water that is naturally fermented by lactic acid bacteria and wild yeast. It’s not just sourdough – using microbial bacteria to prepare food and explore new flavours has become a big trend as well, as people experiment with fermenting at home. To get the lowdown on fermentation (and a great kimchi recipe), we reached out to Jeff Kang, a Toronto chef who helped put fermented ingredients on the country’s fine dining menus.

October 27, 2020
A beef sourdough miso with morels, served at Canis

enRoute You were born in Seoul to a North Korean mother and a South Korean father. What is your family’s food culture?

Jeff Kang Food was always big in my family. My grandmother was a great cook. She grew up in North Korea with very limited access to meat and fish, so vegetables were really important, and when she did have access to animal protein, she used every bit, from nose to tail. That had a big influence on me. She did a lot of pickling and made her own miso, soy sauce and vinegar. That was my first contact with fermentation. My mom was vegan and learned from my grandmother how to make everything from scratch. She would go mushroom picking and preserve fiddleheads and dandelions that she brought back so that we would have vegetables and greens in the winter. She made everything herself, from kimchi to sauces and noodles. My dad, who was of South Korean descent, owned a company that made food processing machines – ice cream, chips and Korean-style nori sheets – and we actually moved to Canada for his job. But wherever we lived, we only ate what was locally sourced, a lot of which we fermented, so I didn’t grow up on grocery foods.

A bowl of fresh koji
A pair of hands holding a bowl of squid with peanut and basil from Canis

ER In July, you permanently closed your Queen Street West restaurant Canis as a result of the pandemic. What are some innovative menu items that garnered great reviews and made Canis a Toronto darling?

JK I’m not one to say I led the fermentation surge in Canada, but rather that I led the conversation about fermentation. From the start, fermentation has been at the heart of Canis, just like it has been at the heart of my home cooking. As a small restaurant with tasting menus only, we wanted to create unexpected flavours, and at the same time we couldn’t afford to waste anything. Preserving was the natural way of creating dishes that highlighted my personality as a chef and prevented food loss. All the fish entrails, meat trimmings and egg whites were turned into garums [fermented fish sauce used as a condiment in Ancient Rome that is nowadays made using a variety of ingredients]. Whether we made a duck or wild game garum, we used it to add flavour to our sauces. For example, the glaze for our Peking-style duck was made using duck garum. It really brought out the saltiness, sweetness and depth of the meat flavour. We made our own ricotta cheese and caramelized the leftover whey to make a sauce or simply to extend its shelf life. One item that was always on the menu was the duck liver parfait tart, glazed with a fermented berry jelly. I think it changed people’s attitude towards fermentation – they expected something sweet, but fermentation brought out the savoury instead.

Hiro from Canis putting the finishing touches on the duck liver parfait

ER How does that happen?

JK It all comes down to the work of micro-organisms like yeast, mold and bacteria specialized at converting substances into others. During fermentation, those microbes break down sugars and starches into alcohol or acids. Sauerkraut, kimchi, pickles and sourdough are a product of lactic acid fermentation – the most common form. If we look at pickling, when placed in a specific environment, lactobacillus (a bacteria naturally found on fruits and vegetables) converts sugar into lactic acid and that’s what gives fermented foods their tangy taste. In order to be successful, room temperature should remain constant, humidity levels controlled and jars and utensils need to be 100% clean; otherwise, bad bacteria may develop. But it’s not as complicated as it seems – most lacto-ferments are easy to do at home because they require nothing more than salt, water and fruits or vegetables.

A plate of pork jowel with green bean and peanuts from restaurant Canis

ER Fermentation saw a global surge five or six years ago. What do you think triggered that?

JK There’s evidence of wine-making throughout the Middle East and Asia from about 4,500 BC. In parts of Europe, India and the Middle East, where animal agriculture later prevailed, cultured milk and cheeses were made, while fermented foods that originated in Asia were made using rice, grains and vegetables. In Africa, cereal grains, such as wheat and millet, are commonly fermented. So, fermentation has always been around, but the knowledge and technique weren’t always as widespread, and it wasn’t something we talked about – you couldn’t sell it. A few years ago, renowned chefs started pushing the boundaries and experimenting with different methods and ingredients and shared their findings. Chef René Redzepi of Noma in Copenhagen is a leading force in the cooking world and in the fermentation revolution. By starting a food lab and publishing a fermentation manifesto, Noma didn’t just educate the whole world, it also proved that there was something beyond French and Italian cuisines. From then on, foodies weren’t only open to the idea of fermentation, they were actively seeking it. That helped so many restaurants that were already relying on fermentation but weren’t talking about it. And today, you can turn to YouTube to learn how to make the most complicated ferment. I think the amount of information available is also why people are taking on fermentation as a hobby, and Covid showed just that. People are recreating what they saw their parents and grandparents do, and that led to the rise of sourdough.

A Canis cook putting the finishing touches on a duck and carrot nasturtium

ER A good kimchi transports you back to the Seoul of your childhood — what are some other memories you associate with fermented foods?

JK Anytime I smell the “funk” of fermented foods, it takes me back to an area in Osaka where people were pickling eggplants and cucumbers out on the streets with the help of their neighbours. As a kid, we had gone to Japan on one of my dad’s business trips and I remember hating the smell – a “first time you eat blue cheese” sort of thing – but it grew on me, and I absolutely love it now. Paris is another place I get carried to when the smell of charcuterie wafts through the air. Every time my wife and I go, we buy fine meats at a gourmet grocery store, pick a good wine bottle at a local caviste and have a picnic in one of the city’s idyllic parks.

“If I could eat one thing for the rest of my life, it would be kimchi.”

An illustration of hands taking kimchi out of a bowl

Jeff Kang’s Kimchi Recipe

This recipe yields 10 litres (approximately 20 regular mason jars) of kimchi.
 

Ingredients

  • 6 large Napa cabbage heads

  • 8 cups julienned radishes (daikon, pink or French)

 

For the kimchi paste

  • ½ cup chopped onion

  • 1 large apple

  • 3 tbsp salted fermented shrimp

  • ¼ cup fish sauce

  • ½ cup grated garlic

  • 3 tbsp grated ginger

  • 1 cup gochugaru (Korean chilli flakes)

  • 2 tbsp fine sugar

  • 4 scallions cut into 2 cm pieces

  • ½ cup rice starch (made using ¼ cup rice flower and 1 cup water)

 

Instructions

  1. Wash the cabbage heads and cut into bite-sized pieces.

An illustration of washed cabbage in a colander
  1. Brine the cabbage overnight in a 10% salt to water ratio solution. Rinse off the following morning.

  2. Make your rice starch by cooking the rice flour with the water for a few minutes, until the colour changes and the texture becomes starchy. Measure ½ cup and set aside.

  3. Blend together all the ingredients for the paste, including the rice starch.

An illustration of blending kimchi paste ingredients in a food processor
  1. Mix kimchi paste, radishes and brined cabbage.

An illustration of combing all of the kimchi ingredients into a mixing bowl
  1. Store mixture in a covered container and let sit for three days at room temperature (19˚C-23˚C).

  2. Lock lid and store in the refrigerator for up to a week.

An illustration of kimchi within three mason jars

The Questionnaire

  • Dream seatmate My wife. Although, I wish I could have one more trip with my dad.

  • Favourite souvenir Fermented cod roe that I bring back from Korea every time I go. It’s salty and savoury and I love to eat it with plain rice.

  • Travel style Shop, eat, drink.

  • Last trip L.A. with my clique of Korean chefs from Toronto.

  • Next trip Portugal, for the seafood and wine. I can’t wait to visit the local markets.

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