The Noma Guide To Fermentation

Copyright © 2018. Illustrations by Paula Troxler.
Copyright © 2018. Illustrations by Paula Troxler.
Fermentation is one of the biggest food trends right now, and at noma, one of the world’s best restaurants, every dish includes some fermented element. We talk to David Zilber – the chef who runs the restaurant’s acclaimed fermentation lab – about his new book, The Noma Guide to Fermentation, and whether everyday people can actually embrace this trend at home.


1.       What inspired you to write this book?

For a long time, it has been quite obvious to everyone at the restaurant that people who’d purchased or enjoyed the previous two noma cookbooks never really cooked from them. No one’s ever run up to René to let him know that they’d cooked that one special dish of cabbages and wild greens from Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine. The previous books served very much as monographs, like an artist’s recollection of their greatest exhibitions.

But cookbooks aren’t meant to be stored on coffee tables, they’re meant to kept in the kitchen, acquiring stains and dog ears. So that was one of the starting points when considering just what this book was going to be, very early on in the process. One of the main reasons cooking from the previous noma cookbooks was so hard was because the ingredients were often rare and hard to come by. So we asked ourselves, “What main pillar of the restaurant’s identity is actually something you could do everywhere?”

Fermentation was the obvious answer. It was something that had traditionally been practiced in the homes of grandmothers the world over, and if people had gotten away from it, perhaps it was time to bring them back in touch with it. This is something people could easily do at home, if only they were shown how. We’ve been passionate and enthusiastic about it for a long time, and wanted to share it with as many people as possible. The timing of it feels so right, especially as there is such a palpable buzz surrounding fermentation right now.


2.       What are your favourite recipes from this cookbook?

Wow, there are so many to choose from, it’s hard to pick a favourite. But if I must, I’ll give you three. I’d say the first is apple kombucha. It’s one of the easiest recipes in the book to make, and so refreshing when you get to enjoy it. All you need is good quality apple juice, a SCOBY, a jar and some cheesecloth! It’s effervescent, puckery, not at all too sweet, yet complex. It has served as the base of many different offerings on our non-alcoholic juice pairing for years.

Maizo is a mash-up of cultures that maybe only noma could have produced. Over the past four years, we’ve travelled the world three times, doing noma pop-ups in Japan, Australia and Mexico – transporting our staff and ideas in each instance in an attempt to exercise and hone our creativity. We learned so much about how miso is made in Japan by touring traditional miso factories. And then in Mexico, seeing how corn was transformed into masa for all sorts of traditional dishes got our wheels turning even more. The mash-up that is Maizo takes the Japanese method of making miso, but trades soybeans for nixtamalized corn. The flavour is out of this world, floral and electric.

Finally, roasted chicken wing garum is another favourite of mine. I’d conceived of it while down in Sydney for Noma Australia. Roasted chicken wings are mixed with mouldy grains, water and salt for the most potent, umami-rich, mouth-filling seasoning you’ve ever tasted. It’s a wonder-sauce. A splash of it improves everything from stir-fries to pasta to steamed broccoli.


3.       Fermented foods have been around for centuries. Why do you think they’re becoming so popular now?

While fermentation is undeniably ancient, to many people today, it can seem brand-new. I think that stems, in a big way, from the fact that many of the corporations responsible for producing fermented products like beer today have a vested interest in keeping those processes behind closed doors. But that hasn’t always been the case. Fermentation used to lie in the hands of ordinary people, not giant multinational companies.

Going deep into human history, we find so much variety in the styles of fermentation from place to place. Ideas, and people, moved much more slowly thousands of years ago. Traditions kept ancient recipes for fermented foods true over the course of centuries and generations, and we still enjoy many of those foods today. Those invaluable traditions worked by keeping variation to a minimum. In the past, fermentation was different because it had to be, while today, it’s different because it can be.

The more people learn about fermentation, the more they realise these aren’t processes that need to kept behind closed doors, but can in fact be done by ordinary, everyday people. People are becoming more and more concerned about consuming real foods, full of the bacteria their bodies need to function. And while fermentation might seem trendier than ever, I don’t think it’s fair to talk about something so essential to the way we eat going through a “trend”. It’s more than that … fermentation is going through an understanding.


4.       Can you explain why every dish at Noma includes some form of fermentation?

When noma first set out to define itself as a restaurant almost 15 years ago, René and the team set out to define the foodways of our region. Somehow they knew that limitations were bound to bring focus. Not that it was lazy to call up a vegetable supplier and ask for lemons for that evening’s fish dish, but in a way (creatively at least) it was [lazy].

If you drew a border around your geographic area, and said you were only going to cook with the products within that region, you forced yourself to find new ways of interpreting old ideas. And that’s exactly what happened. When it came to acidity, instead of reaching for lemons, seafood would end up being seasoned with the flesh and juice of unripe berries. When it came to tropical flavours, wild native herbs replaced foreign farmed ones. But when the noma team was searching for deep flavours, rich in umami and savouriness, nature’s fresh pantry proved sparse.

Fermentation, on the other hand, was up to the task. It gave us the tools – the building blocks, if you will – to bring layers of nuance and complexity to our dishes, propping up lighter, ephemeral, often vegetal Nordic ingredients with a solid base of moreishness. Today, there’s hardly a dish at noma that doesn’t benefit from a drop of lacto-fermented juice, or a reduced sauce of our pea misos. Simply put, fermentation is the skeleton upon which the flavours of our dishes are built.


5.       What are the health benefits to eating fermented foods?

There’s more and more evidence coming in that human beings are less human than we think. By that I mean that we turn out to be more like human ecosystems, playing host within our bodies to billions of microbes that span hundreds of species. Many of them are essential to our survival, aiding in bodily functions that keep us running smooth.

A lot of researchers suggest that consuming fermented foods – which are full of living populations of the bacteria responsible for their creation – helps to populate the gut with a fresh shot of the microbes that keep us healthy. Now, the human microbiome is a lot more complex than the communities of organisms that exist in many fermented foods, and while there is still much research to be done in these fields, you’ll rarely hear someone who eats a lot of fermented foods complain about their upset stomachs. Maybe there’s more truth in grandma’s cooking than we realise…


6.       Can the average home cook actually ferment foods in their own kitchen?

Absolutely! We wouldn’t have fermented foods today if home cooks hadn’t carried on these traditions for millennia! I totally understand that fermentation may seem daunting, or challenging, or unapproachable, but it really isn’t beyond reach! In our book, we make a conscious effort to ease people into fermentation by beginning with the simplest practices.

Lacto fermentation requires nothing more than a fruit or vegetable, some salt, and a mason jar. And beyond the “can”, we really believe that people should ferment their own food. Not just because it’s great to be connected to the things you eat, but also because the flavours speak for themselves. Cooking with fermented foods will make your cooking better and easier. There’s no doubt in my mind about that.


7.       What’s your top tip for fermenting foods?

Good quality ingredients! Or as the French say, “matière première”. Your ferments are only as good as the products that go into them. Sourcing the best apples you can will yield you the best apple kombucha; the best legumes you can find will produce the best miso you can make. What a lot of people often fail to understand is that fermentation IS cooking, it just happens more slowly.


8.       For someone who has never eaten fermented food before, what’s a good place to start?

I don’t think I’ve ever met a single person who’s never enjoyed a fermented food. Beer? Cheese? Wine? Bread? Dill pickles? Vinegar? Miso soup? Ferments are more ubiquitous than we know. While its processes may seem veiled or out of reach, the products are some of the most important pillars of cuisine – things so commonplace we hardly recognise them as fermented foods at all. There’s a quote by the late American poet John Ciardi I love: “Fermentation and civilisation are inseparable”. I think it’s true. And if you’re not starting a civilisation from scratch somewhere in the bush, odds are when it comes to fermentation, you’ve been already been well acquainted for some time.


Try fermenting first hand with Noma’s Apple Kombucha or Hazelnut Miso.

The Noma Guide to Fermentation by René Redzepi and David Zilber (Artisan Books) is on sale now. 



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