Kansha: Appreciation, or, F— You, Fossil Fuels

Kimchi.

Fermentation is really, really in right now. It’s hard to gauge how much of this is due to the mere movement of trends throughout the culinary consumer zeitgeist, and how much of it will stick around and be absorbed into an American way of life that will persist for years to come.

I, like our ancestors before us, came into fermentation as a strategy because I’m a cheap-ass.

My husband likes soda; soda is expensive; who says I can’t make my own soda? If I can make my own tonkatsu ramen, surely I can make my own soda.

My several attempts at getting a ginger bug started didn’t amount to much, but the logic was sound, and moreover, I wound up discovering a whole world out there of fermented, probiotic, and shelf-stable food that once stocked the larders of peasant households the world over. (And if it’s one thing peasants and I have in common, it’s a lack of money.) My second foray into home fermentation was kimchi, something I learned to love (and live off) in college, thanks to some Korean roommates. It was wildly successful. After that, I was a fermenting machine. Well, as much as I had the time, energy, and counter space for.

For me, fermentation isn’t about being culinarily impressive – though it often is – but rather more about being less reliant on my refrigerator.

Almost everything I do with food now I try to contextualize in our vast, sprawling, largely invisible web of fossil fuel usage. How much energy goes into making my condiments? My alcohol? How much energy goes into keeping my produce fresh? How much energy goes into making a salad?

I bought myself a used copy of Kansha: Celebrating Japan’s Vegan and Vegetarian Traditions for my birthday recently. Not only did it immediately find itself in heavy rotation in my small cookbook collection, but it will have a place in the kitchen, I believe, for the rest of my life. The premise of the book is basically how to cook frugally and mindfully the Japanese way. The lengthy appendices talk about how to reuse water used to cook noodles or rinse rice (make a sipping broth with leftover sauce), how to use every single part of a daikon in the same way that the subsistence hunter uses every single part of a kill. In the pickles section, there’s also a few pages dedicated to the Japanese nuka pot, a pot of pickling paste made from rice bran, beer, and vegetable scraps that is maintained not unlike a sourdough starter.

Eventually, the husband and I want to leave the city. We want to leave the grid behind; the nine-to-fives, the endless hedonic treadmill of bills and debt, the noise and light pollution, the carbon-heavy, digitized lifestyles that every single person I know claims to depend on for sanity and survival. We want to remove the countless middlemen between us and that which sustains: the earth, the plants, the animals, and the quality relationships with other people that made most pre-industrial cultures worth fighting for in the face of enclosure, capitalism, and colonialist greed. (No really: most peasants through history had to be forced off their land and into the cities at sword or gunpoint.)

And even though that goal will be years in the making, we’re doing all the mental prep work we can. Right now, that means taking a long, hard look at the refrigerator. If we break down what a refrigerator is and what it does, its workings becomes less mysterious and the prospect of going without one less terrifying.

So what is a refrigerator? A refrigerator is a heavily-insulated box that plugs into the wall which makes food cold so it lasts longer, basically. Or, to put it a slightly different way: a method of food preservation that depends entirely on unsustainable energy* and dangerous chemicals to function. Once you frame it in those terms, it suddenly becomes just one in a variety of methods of preserving the harvest. And when that happens, why, again, are we collectively choosing the most expensive, most environmentally suicidal option?

That’s where kansha and fermentation come in. The two seem to go hand in hand, really – if you have a deep love and appreciation for the bounty of the earth, then frugality should follow, no? Kansha the book is full of tricks on not only preventing food from winding up in the garbage, but from the compost bin too, even. Obviously, the recipes are Japanese in origin, but many of the ingredients, from cabbages to root vegetables, fresh greens to foraged mushrooms, are staples across much of the temperate world, and the author’s careful consideration of the daikon could be applied to almost any sort of root vegetable.

Nuka pots, if diligently kept, can last for decades, even generations. They are a common sight in many Japanese kitchens, and where food scraps that Americans would have no second thought about throwing away are given another lease on life in the form of a crisp, delicious pickle.

Nuka, the Japanese word for rice bran, needn’t be made with the stuff – I hear that wheat bran works just as well, and only needs a little tweaking in how its used. I plan on starting a nuka pot myself in the next few days, as I explore the household feasibility of fermentation as a viable alternative to refrigeration, and as I get my taste buds used to the slow introduction of more and more fermented foods in my diet. (Because someday, pickled vegetables may be the only vegetable I can eat for a good chunk of the year. I’m learning to be OK with this in practice.)

S in addition to kimchi, my list of successful ferments are steadily growing, and I’m getting better at sussing out the particulars of each kind, its strengths and weaknesses, the culinary niche that it might fill in my diet. Here’s what has stuck so far, or will absolutely need to stick before we pack up and head out, like some kind of parallel universe, anti-matter Beverly Hillbilles:

Kimchi

I love the taste of kimchi. It’s tangy, spicy, crunchy, and fantastic on a bed of warm rice. It’s also dirt cheap to make and almost impossible to screw up. (Seriously, I don’t know why anyone buys the stuff. It’s as absurd to me as buying water.) My latest batch I made with gochujang paste instead of chili flakes, because it’s all I had on-hand, but it worked really well all the same. I also replace the shrimp paste with miso in my batches, being vegetarian and all. As for its versatility, there are as many kinds of kimchi as there are vegetables in Asia – this is good news for those of us who might be growing things other than napa cabbage.

Sourdough

I’m still not great at making bread from a sourdough starter, but maybe that’s because I’ve only tried with stone-ground wheat. I can make bread that tastes good and very edible, but it’s dense. The starter, though, is also absurdly easy to cultivate, and is edible at just about every stage of the fermentation cycle.

Kvass/Sima/Cider

I don’t know what to call this stuff, to be quite honest. I’ve got a post written up about it, but the jist is this: it’s chopped fruit mixed with sugar, warm water, and whatever herbs/spices you like to taste, and left to get fizzy on the counter for a few days. It’s a little like the Finnish sima, a fermented lemonade, minus the added yeast… and all those other complicated steps.

Mead

Yes, I’m a burgeoning mead-brewer now. I’m going by a sort of eyeballed, wild-yeasted recipe that an acquaintance of mine wrote about a few months back, and it’s also easy as dirt so long as you know how to adequately sanitize your equipment. It’s one part unpasteurized (preferably local) honey to three to four parts warm water. Add fruit, aromatics, or what have you, and let sit at room temperature for a few months until the mead turns clear, making sure that your containers of choice don’t explode. Taste, rack, enjoy. It’s not cheap alcohol, but boy does it mean more when you make it yourself. And it tastes damn good too.

Nukazuke

If the magic happens in a nuka pot, then the magical result is the nukazuke, rice bran pickles. Again, I haven’t actually done this yet, but I see this being a seamless and delicious addition to my fermentation scheme, and a really good way to prevent otherwise good food scraps from winding up in the compost pail. (This is good for those of us who have a jar in the freezer specially dedicated to broth scraps, and don’t know what to do with the leftovers from cruciferous vegetables, spines from leafy greens, or other miscellany. Pickle ’em!)

Vinegar

I have also not made a vinegar yet, though I intend do as soon as I amass enough apple scraps or wine remnants. From what I’ve read, it sounds similar to making my fizzy fruit drink, except you let it turn alcoholic, then let the alcohol turn into acid. By all accounts this is also ridiculously easy.

Miso

Homemade miso paste is actually really easy to make, it just takes a long time – at least a year – and requires inoculation with a special culture found in a product called koji, where the fungus aspergillus oryzae is grown on specially prepared rice. The inoculated rice is a required ingredient in miso of any type (I’ve seen miso made from all manner of beans, not just soy, as well as barley, which is another traditional variety), though it too doesn’t take too much effort to make if you’ve got koji spores on hand, and the dried koji lasts a long time if stored properly. I love miso and use it in a lot of my cooking, so I can see myself doing a big koji/miso-making spree once a year, maybe entirely out of barley if it’s easy to grow.

With the help of a root cellar, a smoke house, and icy winters, I think we just might pull it off. One caveat: we will probably have a small deep freezer for helping store larger amounts of meat and processed game, which we will likely be able to get away with turning off when outside temperatures are below freezing.

We’ve already committed ourselves to living in a ‘dry’ house – that is, a house without plumbing – thanks to Berkey water filters, and strategically-located cisterns around/under the house and their associated hand pumps, and compost toilets. We’ve already committed ourselves to living with as little electricity as we can get away with also: a DC solar arrangement for a laptop or two, record player,  and occasional light bulb, perhaps. But it definitely won’t be enough to run appliances, let alone one that needs power 24/7.

Yeah, it’s going to be a huge change. But that’s why we’re starting here and now, with the concept of kansha. 

From the book’s dust jacket:

The celebration of Japan’s vegan and vegetarian traditions begins with kansha – appreciation – an expression of gratitude for nature’s gifts and the efforts and ingenuity of those who transform nature’s bounty into marvelous food. The spirit of kansha, deeply rooted in Buddhist philosophy and practice, encourages all cooks to prepare nutritionally sound and aesthetically satisfying meals that avoid waste, conserve energy, and preserve our natural resources.

It’s not about saying “no” to the comforts of a modern Western home. It’s about saying “yes” to a different way of doing things, because if you don’t welcome it with open arms and appreciate it for what it has to offer, then… well, you’re up shit creek, aren’t you? Nothing worse than changing your life for all the wrong reasons.


*All energy that relies in any way on electricity at any point during it or its components’ sourcing, manufacture, use, upkeep, and disposal, is unsustainable in my book. My book is very strict.

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“Animism At The Dinner Table”

As an animist and vegetarian, the subject of food is near and dear to my heart. I can’t stand utilitarian arguments when it comes to food, because plants and ecosystems often get left out of the conversation altogether. How many times have I heard vegans laugh at people who ask about the rights of plants? That’s not a facetious question to me, and it seems that vegans who brush it off as quackery don’t have a very good grasp of what they’re actually fighting for. Talk about speciesism!

Sarah Anne Lawless is an animist who I respect very much, and this is a long blog post from her about how to eat like an animist – that is, eat like someone who believes that everything is alive and intelligent in its own way.

When the world was awash with animism, the people viewed food as sacred and precious. Nature was God and thus food was God. Little berry deities on the bush, succulent root deities in the earth, sweet deity blood as sap running from a tapped birch tree. Animals were deities too, presided over by the wild and fearsome forest gods who could curse or kill those who did not treat their realm with respect. Ancient hunters would ask permission of these wild gods before hunting their deer or boar. Ancient gatherers would ask permission before picking berries or harvesting the soft edible cambium or underbark of trees. All that is left of these beliefs and practices is folklore and prayers from both the Old and New Worlds, collected as anecdotes rather than as a body of living lore.

[…]

The more you do this the more you may start to notice that the natural world responds back. Maybe the forest will reveal its best berry picking and root-digging spots to you after your good treatment of its denizens, its resources. Maybe it will get less and less hard to find deer during hunting season after you’ve consistently asked for permission from the forest. Maybe you’ll end up with more fish from the river than you’ve ever caught before after years of giving it simple offerings, asking respectfully for a good catch, and cleaning up any garbage you find. If you dwell in a more sub/urban area, maybe it will be simply that your vegetable garden flourishes as never before and your chickens lay the best eggs after being treated with love. Perhaps you’ll find an incredibly productive blackberry bush in an unexpected corner of the city away from pollution that yields its fruits to you scratch-free. Whatever they may be, the rewards for your philosophy in action will become apparent and very much real.

[…]

Many people’s solution is to become vegetarian or vegan to stop participating in the industrial machine that treats animals this way. We laud ourselves for being so ethical, but in doing so we can easily forget that plants deserve fair treatment just as much as animals do. We forget to think about the forests and wetlands destroyed so they can be replaced by fields of organic carrot and soy bean monocrops in California.

We forget to think about the environmental footprint of importing fruits, vegetables, and grains over long distances. We forget to think about if our produce has been genetically modified or altered or covered in herbicides, pesticides, and insecticides and what the health effects of such things are upon the land, its waters, the animals that live on it, the bees who pollinate it, the farmers that tend it, and our children who eat its fruits. We forget to think about if the produce was commercially grown on land raped of its nutrients and filled with fertilizers to compensate, leaching into the water supply and contaminating it for animals and humans. Yes, even organic agriculture is guilty of this.

We forget to think about if our produce was grown with long-term sustainability in mind. Farmers,  animals, and whole ecosystems are dying so we can eat organic soybeans and corn we don’t actually need. How many people have to die and how much more research has to be done before we abandon the Frankenstein that is modern commercial agriculture? Even organic agriculture is not sustainable, not the way we are currently practicing it. How many studies must be done proving plants are intelligent and can feel pain before we start to treat them better and stop splicing their genes and covering them in toxic chemicals? How long until we realize maybe we can’t always do this better than Nature naturally does?

Read the rest at her website. Please do, it’s a very humble, inspiring read!

Baking Substitutions

The hubs and I made a trip to Costco a couple weekends ago and treated ourselves to a box of brownie mix – it came with six bags of mix! No, not particularly zero waste, but it should last us a long time.

A few days ago I visited our local market and saw they had bags of bruised apples on their “day old” produce shelf – everything there is a dollar and would otherwise get thrown out – so I grabbed some, hoping that I’d get a chance to make some kind of baked dessert before they headed too far south. I didn’t get a chance to do that, so I whipped out my manual puree grinder and made some applesauce out of what was left. It wasn’t exactly great… kinda starchy. So I got worried. What the heck would I do with it?

And then it occurred to me. Brownies! Apparently you can substitute applesauce for not just eggs in a recipe, but oil too. So I did, and it got me to thinking about all the other “simple food” substitutions there are out there. Because lets face it, aside from eggs, a lot of what we need substitutes for in recipes tend to be the highly specialized, processed ingredients like oil, butter, or certain flours or starches. While these things are indeed staples, they are far from simple foods – a lot of energy goes into making even the plainest bottle of olive oil, for instance. Or bag of all-purpose flour. Their ubiquity betrays their labor and energy intensive processing to get from plant to shelf. (So all things considered, a half-dozen local apples in a plastic bag is less wasteful than even bulk oil when you take processing and manufacturing into consideration.)

Anyways, enough of that. What other interesting baking substitutions are there? Well, poking around the internet, here are a few I’ve run into:

  • 1/3 c. applesauce for 1 egg
  • 1 tbsp ground flax seeds (FRESHLY ground) in 1/4 c. warm water for 1 egg
  • 1 ripe mashed banana for 1 egg
  • equal amounts applesauce for oil called for
  • juice for oil called for
  • mashed (not refried) beans for oil called for (match bean color to the recipe!)
  • avocado for cheese or butter
  • mashed sweet potato for cheese or butter

Got any other wacky ideas, readers?

Lunch

San Franciscano beans from Rancho Gordo and some sauteed Swiss chard.

My stomach hasn’t been all that happy lately, what with the proliferation of gross BBQ/picnic food available practically every weekend during the summer. It seems that I can’t actually go to a party and be able to eat most of what’s served, anymore. I’m really trying to take my health problems seriously this year, but I’m being thwarted at every damn turn by friends and family alike. First of all, I’m vegetarian, so that eliminates at least half of what I can eat anywhere I go. Add to that my GI upsets and whoops, there goes just about everything else. If it’s not meat, it’s usually loaded with cheese, cream, processed fats and oils, sugar, or a mix of any of the above in the form of greasy sauces that’ll have me running to the bathroom in no time.

The carbs and sugars I’m trying to cut down because it’s terrible for my non-diabetic hypoglycemia, and the rest I have to limit because of IBS/GERD.

What this means is that I can have a couple bites of party food and… that’s about it. Yesterday (July 4th, for those whom it’s not on the radar – I wish it weren’t on mine!) I bit the bullet and brought not only my own dinner, a vegetarian sandwich, but also my own alcohol: homemade sangria without added sweetener. Yep, I’m limiting beer too. I felt like a party pooper, but it’s just something I’m going to have to suck up and get over.

So I just haven’t been feeling right lately, is what most of this is about, and so I’m trying to do something about it. Gonna try and apply KISS to my food for a while: “Keep It Simple, Stupid”!

For this I used my current favorite bean, San Franciscanos. They’re an heirloom bean from Mexico, and to die for. They’re pinto-sized, but much richer in flavor and hold their shape when cooked, which makes them great for salads. To prepare them, soak for at least 12 hours first. (This is how you avoid getting gas, and prolonged soaking also breaks down the chemicals in the bean that prevent nutrient absorption.) Then with plenty of water, bring to a boil in a pot with some onion, crushed garlic, a bay leaf, and plenty of salt, before reducing to a simmer for an hour or two until tender and the skins crack when blown on.

I served them with some sauteed Swiss chard, cooked in a little avocado and olive oils, minced garlic, and salt.

A small helping of wild rice would have been a great addition, but I don’t have any on hand. Either way, this was very filling, nutritious, and for the first time in a while, I don’t feel bloated and tired from eating!

Tofu Scramble, Two Ways

Inspired by the long-since updated Hot Knives blog, run by two fellow Angelinos who wrote one of my top vegetarian/vegan cookbooks (seriously – between Lust For Leaf and Miyoko Schinner’s Vegan Pantry, I’m not wanting for another vegan cookbook), I give you yet another tofu scramble recipe!

A little background: I’m not particularly fond of scrambled eggs. If I make or order eggs at all, it’s usually over easy or poached or fried. Either way, a runny yolk is important, otherwise I don’t even bother. The hubs doesn’t really eat anything other than scrambled eggs, though, so when we’re together, that’s what I suck up and make. (Boooring.) I wasn’t really a big fan of tofu scramble either. I’d tried making it a few times and failed miserably, and besides, what was the point in trying to recreate an egg experience I didn’t particularly like anyways? So recently, I happened to come into a four-pack of firm tofu from Costco, so I decided to hunker down and figure it out. And I did! And I am never sacrificing an egg to such a sub-par dish ever again! Because this puts the original to shame.

Lumberjack Scramble Ingredients

  • 1 package firm tofu, drained
  • Gimme Lean or other breakfast sausage (pre-cook if actual meat)
  • diced onion or shallot
  • minced garlic
  • 1/4 – 1/2 c. nutritional yeast
  • 2 tbsp – 1/4 c. soy sauce, liquid aminos, etc.
  • fresh or dried parsley
  • cracked pepper
  • oil
  • maple syrup (optional)

Soyrizo con Tofu Ingredients

  • 1 package firm tofu, drained
  • prepared or homemade soyrizo
  • cheese of some sort
  • diced onion
  • minced garlic
  • quartered cherry tomatoes
  • 1/4 – 1/2 c. nutritional yeast
  • 2 tbsp – 1/4 c. soy sauce, liquid aminos, etc.
  • fresh or dried parsley
  • cracked pepper
  • oil
  • hot sauce (optional)
  • cilantro (optional)

There’s really no set recipe for either of these – use what you have on hand, and however much you want. Just don’t skimp too much: remember that we’re not marinating the tofu, so be more afraid of tasteless tofu than over-seasoning!

For both, put some oil in your pan over medium heat. Toss in garlic and onion and let it get fragrant. Or a little crispy. Whatever! Now get your tofu and squeeze chunks of it through your fingers to make nice curd clumps, doing the whole package this way. Cover this with a thorough dusting of nooch (not all of it, you’ll be doing this at least three or four times total), and fresh cracked pepper. Let this sit in the pan, sizzling, for a few minutes; let’s say 5. Stir to incorporate the seasoning, then dust again with more nooch and pepper. This time, add a couple tablespoons of soy sauce and your parsley (or equivalents) and let sit again for a few minutes.

For the lumberjack:

Prep your sausage: cutting it into small pieces with solid types, or forming into balls with the Gimme Lean. Give the tofu a stir, layer on more nooch, pepper, and soy sauce. Give it a few more minutes, then add in the rest of your ingredients (except the syrup). Clear some space in the pan if it’s normal sausage to let it brown a little. If it’s Gimme Lean, you can toss the balls right in and let them cook with the tofu. Once it passes the taste test, it’s ready to serve with a drizzle of maple syrup and a side of buttered toast!

For the soyrizo:

Prep your tomatoes and cheese (grate it, shave it, who cares). Give the tofu a stir, layer on more nooch, pepper, and soy sauce. Give it a few more minutes, then add in the rest of your ingredients. Clear some space in the pan for the soyrizo, and let it cook for a few on its own before incorporating it into the rest of the tofu. You want it a little crispy if possible. Throw on your cheese and let it get melty. Once it passes the taste test, it’s ready to serve with tortillas, some salsa or hot sauce, and a sprinkle of cilantro!

 

Furikake Seasoning

IMG_20160118_130259

I’ve seen furikake get called ‘the salt and pepper of Japan’, and back in college I learned why. The stuff is delicious and I can’t get enough of it. Asian supermarkets will often carry an amazing and colorful assortment of furikake jars, but finding one with certain ingredients can be frustrating, especially as a vegetarian or vegan. Most varieties contain bonito, shrimp flakes, or some other dehydrated seafood, and sometimes include less desirable ingredients like MSG or anti-caking agents, and they all come with silica packets. Not to mention that the jars, which are small, cost a pretty penny in spite of the simple ingredients.

So what was I to do?

Duh, make my own.

After doing a little research, I’ve hammered out a basic formula that I liked:

Furikake

  • 2 parts dried nori
  • 1 part dried wakame
  • 1 part dried shiitake mushrooms
  • 1 part sesame seeds (black, white, or both)
  • sea salt, to taste (note that this stuff is meant to be really salty)

In a blender or food processor, process the wakame, shiitake, and salt until they’re a coarse powder. (This will take a while – you may need to use a spice grinder for the wakame.) Add nori in torn pieces and pulse until those are small flakes. Combine with sesame seeds in an airtight container and keep in the fridge. Sprinkle liberally on EVERYTHING. Especially rice balls filled with small dollops of miso-walnut paste.

Now, this is far from being a hard and fast recipe. You can use almost any kind of dried seaweed you’d like, including used kombu. Maybe try this with smoked or black salt – black salt might make it taste a little bit like there are dehydrated pieces of egg in there, which a lot of commercial furikake does have. Try pepper flakes for a spicy kick, or something totally different like Chinese Five Spice. Some recipes even call for a small sprinkle of sugar, but I’m all about savory when it comes to this stuff.

But basically, the moral of the story is: go nuts.

Is it ZW? No, don’t be silly. Unless you’re lucky enough to live someplace where you can get dried sea vegetables in bulk, which I doubt you are. Bags of dried sea veggies last a pretty long-ass time with occasional use, though, and can be put to many more uses than furikake alone. I usually only need to stock up on this stuff once or twice a year. (Which is good for my wallet, too.)

Happy sprinkling!

MORE Fiber, Fermentation, and Shojin Ryori

Well, my little experiment was a complete success. The low-fiber diet did exactly what I wanted it to do on the GI front, which was pretty darned enlightening, and now that I’ve gone back to my old diet and seen how quickly I go back to chronic upset, it would be ridiculous for me to say that fiber is a good thing for me to be eating as much as I typically do.

Unfortunately, my IBS was the only thing that was helped by eating low-fiber. My adrenal fatigue took a bad blow, and because of my lack of calories (being vegetarian and all), I was frequently low on energy. Unfortunately, plant-based sources of protein and calories often also tend to be sources of unacceptably high levels of fiber unless I go the processed route.

The fact of the matter is, though, that I can’t keep eating upwards of 40 or 50 grams of fiber a day. (And maybe you shouldn’t either – read the links in the previous post.) My goal from now on it to keep it under 15 grams daily; I was doing well under 10 during my fiber fast, and while my bowels were super happy, my appetite… wasn’t. I was eating white rice, tofu, miso, eggs, ramen, and not too much else, and the blandness was driving me crazy. And I’m definitely not alone in feeling this way about low-fiber foods. Moreover these complaints come from people who eat meat too – I don’t even have that much!

Over the course of the next week I’ll be doing more research on low-fiber diets and writing up some recipes for things that I’ve tried and love, and things that I think would love to try when I get the chance. Check out the link in the last paragraph: there are some good ideas to start with there, and the savory bread pudding is something that a vegetarian or vegan could definitely make. Just avoid “healthy” bread – plain white is all that’s allowed.

So to start, I’ll remind everyone of this plain white bread recipe. It’s not “sandwich” bread, but it is hella easy, it counts as unprocessed white bread, and you can make it from your favorite brand of all-purpose white flour. Win-win!

No-Knead Crusty Bread

  • 3 c. flour
  • 1 1/2 c. water (or enough to make it floppy and sticky)
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 tsp. dry yeast
  1. Incorporate all ingredients in a large bowl until consistently mixed. Let sit for anywhere between 8-18 hours at room temperature.
  2. When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 450F with your baking vessel – a dutch oven or similar lidded pot – inside so that it can heat up too.
  3. Dump out the risen glob of dough onto a liberally floured work surface with liberally floured hands. Work the dough into a ball shape if you want. Amorphous blobs turn out just fine too.
  4. Take the pot out of the oven and deposit the dough into it, covering with the lid. Bake for 30 minutes or so, then take the lid off and bake for however long until the outside gets brown and crusty – about 10-15 minutes.

On Fiber, Fermentation, and Shojin Ryori

I’ve got IBS. (Who doesn’t these days?) And I’ve been to my GP, seen the gastroenterologist, and gotten the same half-assed treatment that most other Americans with IBS wind up getting: “Eat lots of fiber, drink lots of water, take lots of probiotics, and don’t be afraid to keep some Imodium around if you need it. Next!”

That was two years ago, and I gotta say, I’m really not doing much better. In fact, I slowly discovered that fiber wasn’t the answer. Not only was it not the answer, but it seemed to make things worse. And then I self-diagnosed (with the input of my mom, who is seeing a functional doctor for the same thing) with Adrenal Fatigue, where I found out about the perils of overhydrating – of drinking too much water. If you have AF, then staying hydrated is tricky because of our body’s weakened ability to retain salt and other minerals, which can make us chronically deficient in magnesium and potassium. And that’s on top of the typical American’s baseline tendency to be minerally deficient.

I had long suspected that probiotics had become a racket, and knew that Imodium, while it technically worked, didn’t actually fix anything. So that left me with no good answers for how to go about dealing with my intestinal woes. Then a few days ago, I came across an interesting website: GutSense.org.

Fiber

Now, the details are definitely not for the squeamish; suffice to say, I’ve experienced a lot of what the author explains. He’s affiliated with a few of his own interests, namely a book about the myths perpetuated about fiber as an essential part of the human diet, and a series of supplements to help reestablish gut flora after a colonoscopy, after surgery, or anything else that can kill off the bacteria living in your gut. To me, though, this guy seems to be more reliable than a lot of other homeopathic snake oil I’ve seen out there for a few reasons, namely that he cites actual sources for his claims. So I’m inclined to try following his advice.

What’s important about this site is what I wound up learning about fiber, and how it pretty solidly matched my own experience toying with fiber levels in my diet over the past few years.

In his IBS FAQ, he writes this:

Q. How come they recommend “Increased fiber intake for constipation,” if fiber is a well-known gas- and diarrhea-producing substance?

To me, that‘s either the biggest “medical mystery”, or the biggest “medical idiocy,” or simply outrageous negligence, or, perhaps, all of the above. In fact, to unravel this mind-boggling incongruity for myself and others, I wrote a book entitled “Fiber Menace: The Truth About the Leading Role of Fiber in Diet Failure, Constipation, Hemorrhoids, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Ulcerative Colitis, Crohn’s Disease, and Colon Cancer”, and you are welcome to read it.

If you are a skeptical medical professional reading this, and, all things considered, I don‘t blame you a bit for being skeptical, consider the following two quotes from the American College of Gastroenterology Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders Task Force [link]:

“Fiber doesn’t relieve chronic constipation and all legitimate clinical trials demonstrated no improvement in stool frequency or consistency when compared with placebo.”

“In the management of IBS, psyllium is similar to placebo. In fact, the bloating associated with psyllium use will likely worsen symptoms in an IBS patient.”

Psyllium is a source of soluble and insoluble fibers found in Metamucil-type laxatives, and their digestive properties are identical to all other types of fiber.

There’s a lot more on there. A lot more. Basically, he outlines the following timeline for how and why IBS develops, and how and why it never seems to get resolved:

  1. It all starts with a loss of bacterial flora in the gut. This can be from antibiotics (whether prescribed or from non-organic meat and dairy products), x-rays, bowel prep for surgeries, excessive use of laxatives, chlorine or arsenic in tap water, mercury in fish, and a whole host of other things. He calls this disbacteriosis, which, while the intestinal flora is considered vital to our health, is not a medically accepted term or condition for reasons unknown.
  2. Loss of gut flora results in harder, smaller stools, which our bowels aren’t really designed to pass.
  3. Constipation. Though because “constipation” means that you haven’t had a bowel movement in no fewer than 3 days, the author prefers to call this “impacted stools”. This stage is only apparent if you’re already on a low-fiber diet, apparently. Those of us who eat lots of fiber already have a harder time recognizing that we have a problem, though the problem is still there.
  4. Treat the constipation with more fiber. He writes: “Medical professionals and Dr. Moms alike recommend dietary fiber and fiber laxatives to “naturally” alleviate hardness, particularly when stools are small and dry. Fiber bulks up (enlarges) and moisturizes stools by either retaining water, blocking water absorption, or both.”

For the purpose of this post, I’ll stop there, since I want to talk about fiber.

What does fiber actually do? If you’ve ever made a flax egg before, then you already know. A gram of fiber can absorb many times its weight in water, and that’s exactly what it does in your body. This can actually dehydrate you, encouraging you to drink more, and inevitably results in loss of minerals through overhydration. And not only that, but it actively discourages the restoration of gut flora. The author explains so here:

The by-products of fiber‘s bacterial fermentation (short chain fatty acids, ethanol, and lactic acid) destroy bacteria for the same reason acids and alcohols are routinely used to sterilize surgical instruments—they burst bacterial membranes on contact. And that‘s how fiber addiction develops: as the fermentation destroys bacteria, you need more and more fiber to form stools. If you suddenly drop all fiber, and no longer have many bacteria left, constipation sets in as soon as the large intestine clears itself of the remaining bulk.

For some reason this point is causing intense consternation and controversy among the “experts” on all things fiber. If you are one too, and believe that I am stretching the facts to fit my point of view, please note the following:

(1) The operative phenomenon here isn’t that “fiber causes disbacteriosis,” — butexcess fiber’ — as in “the fermentation of excess dietary fiber.”

(2) Let me remind you that wine in the vat left for too long turns into vinegar, all the bacteria die off, and the fermentation stops. Bacterial fermentation in the wine vat, dear opponents, and in the pile of feces happens to be exactly the same process.

(3) Finally, consider this corroborating quote: “Colonic bacteria ferment unabsorbed carbohydrates into CO2, methane, H2, and short-chain fatty acids (butyrate, propionate, acetate, and lactate). These fatty acids cause diarrhea. The gases cause abdominal distention and bloating.” (Malabsorption Syndromes; The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy.) Let the diarrhea run its course a day too long, and disbacteriosis will soon follow. (God, I love those rare moments when Merck and I are singing the same tune.)

I mean, there’s a reason that folks with severe IBS aren’t allowed any fiber in their diets at all. (A relative of mine isn’t allowed fruit and barely any vegetables for this reason.)

So what the hell am I supposed to do? How, exactly, does a vegetarian avoid fiber?? This is actually something I’ve been thinking about for some months now, and I may have to re-think a lot of how I approach food. Honestly, I’m glad to have an educated medical professional confirm what I was already beginning to sense happening with my own body, and not just that, but also provide a plan for getting back to normal. I may not have to deal with IBS forever. And that is definitely worth a diet change to me.

This means doing homework on cuisines that feature few, if any, high-fiber grains, with little emphasis on cheese and dairy products (for other reasons the website outlines; also for my Adrenal Fatigue). I need to be able to get protein from non-meat, fiber-free sources like eggs and tofu. If I do eat high-fiber vegetables, I should see about getting into the habit of pickling and fermenting them to break some of that fiber down, and also to maximize my ingestion of live cultures, which might help me to restore all that gut flora that I don’t have anymore.

Fermentation

Tsukemono market. Flickr

I was already into the whole fermenting thing after realizing that I could make kimchi at home, which was my gateway drug to the wide, wonderful, world of Korean pickles and Japanese pickles (tsukemono). Not fermented, exactly, but preserved. And then that research, of course, led me to finding out how to make your own miso paste and soy sauce.

I’ve also been dabbling in fermented drinks since that one time I made Sima, a fermented Finnish lemonade that uses baker’s yeast. (I know how it sounds, but trust me, it was good.) For a few weeks back during summer I was trying to get a ginger bug started so that I could make sodas, but for some reason they were all just not quite coming together. Then I read about how non-organic ginger is irradiated, killing all the natural yeasts present in the root and its skin, and gave it another go with some organic pieces. But that’ll be for another post – if I can get some sodas successfully brewed, that is!

But yes, saurkraut, kimchi, kombucha… these things are all in my future. ;]

Shojin Ryori

In thinking about what the heck I’m going to eat as a low-fiber, dairy-free, vegetarian, only one thing really stood out to me: Buddhist temple food, also called shojin ryori in Japanese. There’s an emphasis on simple preparation, simple flavor, and simple food all around. Seasonal ingredients, boiled, steamed, or fried, and served with a few equally simple sauces. With, of course, plain rice.

I learned a lot about Asian cuisine when I was going to college in NYC – my roomate and friends were Taiwanese and Korean, and we all had a special love for traditional Japanese food. I learned how to make miso soup, kimchi, and Japanese curry. We ate a lot of dim sum, and I wound up working on a little comic about dim sum, so I know my way around that type of food like the back of my hand too! But in my day-to-day, I really did eat a lot of Asian-style food. I had access to people who knew how to read Pinyin packaging, I had access to a really badass rice cooker, and so the big grocery store in Manhattan’s Chinatown became my go-to for cheap groceries. Gai Lan, a very healthy vegetable in the cabbage family, was usually 99c a pound, and I practically lived off the stuff. Bok Choi was similarly priced, and so soup made with that, some miso, dashi, and either somen or Korean-style noodles also became a staple.

In other words, aside from sandwiches and Mexican food (which is what I grew up with), far-east Asian cuisine is stuff I could eat – and have eaten – every day.

Curious about trying out Shojin Ryori with me? Until I get my hands on a book or three, I’ll be going by a guide from Tofugu.com, “How to Eat Like a Buddhist Monk”:

Part 1: What is Shojin Ryori?
Part 2: Shojin Ryori Ingredients
Part 3: Prepping Your Foundation
Part 4: Get Cooking!

Here are some more recipes from Sotozen-net. And here’s another website dedicated to exploring the food of the Zen monasteries – most blog posts are mindful meditations on and explanations of ingredients, or what’s going on in the culture of the cuisine, but there are some recipes too. And if you’re more curious about traditional Korean food, then there’s always my favorite resource, Maangchi.

This is not going to be very zero waste – as a lot of these ingredients will be packaged, and I may be buying shrink-wrapped produce (bleh), oh well – but it will be seasonal, it will be very easy to buy in bulk, and best of all, this stuff is easy for me to make. If it’s going to be a scale of “raw carrot” to “tempura”, then it’s no big deal. (Tempura is far from the most complex thing I’ve made.) And if all of this helps my IBS? I will definitely be letting the world know.

In the meantime, though, I’ve got some walnuts to contend with!

Lunch + A Small Announcement

Greek salad, cheese and crackers, and iced coffee with almond milk. All homemade!

In other news, I am officially in my 13th month of having this blog. I wanted to celebrate my 1-year anniversary by starting up a bi-monthly Throwback Thursday post, so stay tuned for what I dig up this week. :]