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A History of Spice: Fermented Foods Before and After the Chili

May. 31, 2017

A History of Spice: Fermented Foods Before and After the Chili

By Richard Adcock

Kirsten and Christopher Shockey didn’t set out to become historians of fermentation. The pickles and krauts that kickstarted their current occupation began as a pragmatic project—a way to make their homestead in Oregon pay for itself. “We had cheeses and cider, and the fermented vegetables filled in the time before the apples were ready,” says Christopher. 

The ferments went into jars that went to their farmers market stand, and were an immediate hit. “People would buy a jar and come back for another one the next week,” Christopher says. Sometimes that wasn’t enough, and some customers requested recipes (which the Shockeys gladly provided). But fermentation is one of those things that’s best taught hands-on—“Our passion is for the process,” Christopher says. So they started offering courses and workshops, at venues around the country  and at their farm.

Amidst the classes and production, Kirsten’s curiosity kept her experimenting, and the resulting ideas and refinements made their way into a book: Fermented Vegetables. 

A different kind of inspiration motivated their new book, Fiery Ferments. As the name suggests, the book will teach you to make just about any spicy pickle or ferment you can imagine. The reader might assume that it’s all about capsaicin, and in a way it is. But “fiery” for the Shockeys has a much broader meaning. “We started with this garden of chili peppers and went down an entirely different path,” says Kirsten. “The recipes aren’t all with chilies. It might be a green peppercorn mustard!”

In their research on spicy fermented foods (often used as condiments or seasoning) they found a history that stretches back far past the  when the chili pepper was brought from America to the rest of the world. They divided the book into “before and after chilies”—what did people use to spice up their food in such a world?

“We wanted to explore what different cultures did back then. Himalayan cultures have achar—a pickled, semi-dried vegetable. They’d dry a lot of the moisture  out of the vegetable and add mustard seed, mustard oil and szechuan pepper, and then put that in the sun to ferment,” says Christopher. Pre-Columbian Thai food, as another example, used green peppercorns, ginger and galangal.

Historical food cultures we may not think of as exotic had distinctive ways of spicing their food, too. In medieval Europe, Christopher discovered, cooks often used spices called cubeb, long pepper, and birds of paradise—though virtually unknown today, they were once as popular as black pepper in European cooking. 

“I found these medieval recipes with long pepper, for instance, where we don’t know how the recipes would have tasted. We have to guess a little bit—what would have been fermented, based on what needed to be preserved?”

Fiery Ferments image 1

Fermentation, as the Shockeys discovered, is an excellent vehicle for exploring the ingenuity and regional specificity of global food cultures. There’s a mindblowing variety of fermented condiments—it seems almost every cuisine has one, and many are spicy. A favorite from the book is pikliz, a Haitian condiment traditionally made with vinegar-steeped vegetables and hot peppers.

“Working with makers is always the best part. Dominique Fevry, a food entrepreneur in London, told us that when she was growing up, her mother and father would gather the whole family in the kitchen to chop vegetables for pikliz, and that’s when they would tell the family stories,” says Kirsten.

Christopher enjoyed peeking into the world of hot pepper breeders. “These people are serious—some of them will breed a hotter pepper than their highest Scoville rated pepper, just to one-up their competitors later on.”

While the Shockeys love traveling to meet other fermentation experts, their research for the book wasn’t all spent out in the field hunting for new and exciting ferments. “It was a little less Bourdain than that,” laughs Christopher. Besides paging through old manuscripts, most of their time was spent experimenting.

“The last couple months were quite an experience,” Christopher says. “Writing what’s basically a hot sauce book, there are a lot of intense tasting moments. Every meal we had for two months had something hot in it.”

The three takeaways from their tongue-tingling research:

  1. “You can’t kill yourself with fermentation,” says Kirsten in a practiced tone. It’s actually very safe.

  2. “There’s amazing flavors in here. You can just keep them in your fridge and pop some out.” Especially exciting is using these spicy condiments to jazz up plant based recipes.

  3. Don’t be afraid of the title! The Shockeys are quick to assure me that not all of these “fiery” recipes will melt your face off. As mentioned above, there are lots of ferments that have “spice” other than capsaicin.

Fiery Ferments is out now. Check out the Shockeys' site for info on their workshops and book tour.

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