"This...is the mother."
Dara picked it out of the bowl with a chopstick. It quivered and dripped into the bowl that it lived in. As it hung there, it unfolded new layers. Dara peeled back a membrane or two.
"What is it?" I asked. Dara explained that Kombucha has been consumed for a couple of thousand years, first in China. She explained how this dripping culture turns tea into a brew full of vitamins, minerals, enzymes and organic acids, and since the sugars are digested -fermentation- a range of amino acids, probiotic microorganisms, and lots of other good things get created.
"But what is that?" I was talking about the thing she was still dangling in the air. It was brown and about a quarter inch thick. It looked like a rotten slice of fish, or a squid that had been opened and left in the sun for a week. Alan looked over at me and cracked up. I think he was transfixed by the weird gloppy thing too. It was me, him, his 25 year old daughter, and one other student, a six foot tall hula hoop teacher named Rosie who eats only raw food.
"Okay, this is a SCOBIE" Dara said. "A Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast" The Scobie was freaking me out. It was alive. I couldn't look away.
"Did you bring any beer tonight?" Alan asked me. I didn't. The last class I'd seen him at was Indian Cooking and we'd both brought six packs. I think we were motivated to do so by the class before that -my first at Dara's house- "Sunday Chicken Dinner", we had both been a bit thirsty during those two hours we sat and watched Dara cook.
"No...but wait, beer is fermented! I should have brought some!" It was starting to dawn on me that fermented foods were everywhere and ranged a lot wider than weird veggie stuff that extreme hippie types eat. Think Wine. Vinegar. Beer. Dill pickles. Soy sauce.
Alan laughed. I was glad he was in class tonight, this is starting to become a little family here.
Alan is a very young 55 years old. Slightly graying short cropped hair, very good shape, alert and intense eyes. When I first met him I had the feeling he was maybe a Zen monk or a professor of Biology, or perhaps a furniture maker. At the Indian class I found out he was a plumbing contractor from a story he told when the subjects came up of health and food. These are the only two subjects we talk about at Dara's house. Mostly food. I think that's why we all come here, so we can obsess about food and feel completely normal.
He said he'd been called to someone's house about a clogged toilet. "So I went into the bathroom, checked it out," he said in his very deliberate, soft spoken way, "and then they asked me what they should do, and I looked at them and said 'you've gotta change your diet' ."
Somehow the thought of a plumbing contractor telling a client they should change their diet was so wrong and so right at the same time, we all laughed.
It was a night of revelations. Mostly good. The exception being a soupy drink called Amazake made from a rice grain treated with something called Koji. I think it needed more almond milk and a whole bunch more sugar. Though it is "an excellent energy boost as the rice is broken down into soluble complex carbohydrates" according to Dara's thick recipe packet, I probably will not ever have it again.
But damn, her fermented crunchy veggies, a pink Kim-Chee sort of mixture of beets, cabbage, turnips, onions, carrots, ginger and garlic were amazingly tasty! I had seen them sitting in their open jars in her *cool tiled pantry a week ago at the last class and was surprised at how yummy they were. A little like those tiny pickled veggie things you sometimes get beside your sushi.
I almost didn't come to the class because I thought, how good can the actual sit down meal be on fermentation night? Are we going to light the candles, pour the wine and then linger over plates of yogurt and Saurkraut?
It was actually great. Dara let me fry the Uttapam on the griddle of her immaculately white, 1940's, Okeefe and Merrit stove*. These are tasty little Indian pancakes made from a rosy batter that has red lentils in it. And the main starch of the night was Potatoes with Mustard Seeds and Onions, a yummy long cooked dish that made the whole house smell like an Indian restaurant.
So we put the almost mushed potatoes on top of the Uttapam and topped that with fermented Coconut Chutney which had chunky bits of chickpea in it, as well as coriander and cumin, and that was the main dish of our feast...along with a simple salad of cabbage, dill, cucumber and lemon juice, it was supremely satisfying.
Though the conversation did veer to long braised oxtails and recipes for shortribs, we ate the vegetatrian faire with gusto. That's the interesting thing about fermented stuff. Fermenting gives foods layers of funkyness and mustiness that approximates -for me- the richness and layers of a meat dish. The Uttapam had a sourness that needed those rich potatoes, and the rich potatoes needed the lemony tang of that chutney. Each one of those elements alone had no super "wow" factor; all three together became incredible.
The same could probably be said for the people seated around any dinner table. Put things together, watch what happens. That's cooking I guess, and socializing.
At the end of the night, a night different from other nights at Dara's because we ate by 8:30 and were snacking and tasting constantly... she gave us two jars of veggies for us to ferment at home in unopened jars left out.
And in a Ziplock bag, she gave us a juicy piece of her Mother.
Oh my god.
My Mother is sitting in my fridge, waiting.
(! Check out Dara's site, thesagetable.com
*also, I had mistakenly called the stove "yellowing" with age in a previous entry on my cookingmyassoff blog.... not so....
*and yo, I had called this crazy little mini kitchen she has, with a sink, jars, a cute little window, blender, a "closet" in that same entry.... I really gotta pay more attention to detail...
it's more like a little butler's kitchen or prep room you see in old houses in New England.)