How Japanese Ferments Are Changing Across the Globe and Becoming Part of American Food Culture

Kirsten K Shockey

February 27, 2022
In pursuit of flavor, cooking techniques and fermentations of Japan are finding themselves in menus and pantries across the globe. Japanese ferments, in particular, have been enticing for those seeking tastiness.
We all seek good flavor. Deliciousness often instigates sharing—whether it is a simple recipe swap, a small bunch of aromatic herbs given to a guest by the cook, a technique discussed, or an ingredient revealed. 

Food connects. The need for oxygen, water, and food is common to every human on the planet. In this list, food stands out as something deeply rooted in culture and tradition, yet it still holds a rare distinction of having the ability to be a bridge across barriers for everyone. Cooking and eating bring us together. Food has linked people from the very first meal shared with friends or foe. Food drifts through borders—political and cultural. Even physical, as small comestibles sneak through bars and barriers to bring comfort. And food will continue to unite humans. But, of course, this conversation would not be complete without acknowledging that food also carries a dark damaging side when used to control populations or individuals, when it is appropriated, when it is withheld, or when its preparation is usurped by corporate greed and is no longer nourishing. 

[top left] purple sweet potato koji with soy miso, [top rihgt] misos made with yellow eye beans and Morro beans, and [bottom] shiitake miso (photo by Kirsten K. Shockey)

However, this is about movement and adaption and most of all, deliciousness. Food moves. Migrations, immigration, and food cannot be separated as it is fundamental to food and our relationships with it. As soon as humans traveled and took their snacks with them, their foods also forged new relationships. As such, ingredients found their way to new places, where their new hosts delighted in serving these ingredients combined with their local elements and sensibilities. The chile pepper from South America landed in Asia, and the local cuisines fundamentally changed. Does that mean that gochujang or spicy curries aren’t authentic? Of course not. It means that when a sapid ingredient entered a region and people made it their own. Thus, food became localized throughout human history.

This adaption also happens when diasporas of people look to create meals from the cuisine of their homeland with the ingredients of their new home. For example, in the 1950s, 12,000 Moluccan soldiers and their families were transported to The Netherlands and housed in camps. In speaking to women much later, who were the young women from small tropical island villages, who suddenly found themselves with only Northern European ingredients. I learned that potato starch was used in an attempt to make a papeda analog. Papeda is made from the starchy pith of a sago palm. When cooked it behaves similarly in texture to tapioca.

[left] koji growing on corn and [right] Tamari pooling on top of sourdough bread miso (photos by Kirsten K. Shockey)

In pursuit of flavor, cooking techniques and fermentations of Japan are finding themselves in menus and pantries across the globe. Japanese ferments, in particular, have been enticing for those seeking tastiness. The Japanese have masterfully worked with microbes over the centuries to unlock sapor, that quality that affects our senses. Incidentally, techniques and ingredients that migrated from China centuries earlier were adapted as well. In this art of flavor, savory or deliciousness was added to bitter, sour, salty, and sweet. The word for umami was coined in Japan in 1908 by chemist Kikunae Ikeda. It is the extra something, the secret sauce, that makes the difference in a dish that is bland or somehow lacking and the one you crave. Many Japanese ferments can sway a dish from meh to dynamic because the fermentation has cultivated amino acids and glutamic acid in particular.

[top left] Cocoa, bean, chile miso mixed and ready to pack in jar,  [bottom right] koji grown on cocoa nibs for miso with beans and chile, and  [bottom right] Cocoa, bean, chile miso packed and ready to ferment (photos by Kirsten K. Shockey)

Sauces and pastes like tamari, shoyu (soy sauce), shio koji, or miso are umami bombs that rely on a two-step fermentation process.  This process begins with a filamentous fungus, aspergillus oryzae, known worldwide by its Japanese moniker—koji. Its spore inoculates a substrate where it grows, laying down enzymes like amylase, protease, and lipase. These catalysts break down larger molecules in the foods (not flavorful) into smaller, simpler parts that are scrumptious. For example, with the help of lipase, fats become much-needed fatty acids. Proteins become delicious amino acids. This action makes the substrate ready for the microbes that ferment to do their work. An example is sake, rice wine, the yeast that creates the alcohol cannot access the sugar they need when it is locked up in the starch molecule. Once freed by koji and amylase, the sugar is available to ferment into wine. 

This natural chemical process can make working with koji feel like working with a magician. Chefs and home cooks are universally discovering ways to collaborate with this fungus by growing it on local ingredients to bring about entirely new dishes and condiments. Interestingly, a positive outcome of the worldwide awareness of koji is that this attention has been an important source of new customers for some of Japan’s twelve koji spore producers. For context, there were 43 companies in 1949. It is a story of changing tastes and a declining amount of traditional fermented food producers.

The real talk here is that the delicious flavors of Japan’s cuisine may need to make this journey into kitchens beyond the borders of Japan to survive. In Japan, the industry of fermented foods has been held in families for generations. However, these small manufacturers are disappearing quickly as consumers’ tastes continue to change. For example, in 1972, there were over 6,000 soy sauce producers, yet the most recent numbers I found from 2019 suggested a mere 1,300. The aforementioned koji producers rely on a strong fermented foods industry that uses koji to begin fermentation.

[left] plant-based burger made with koji, tempeh, and nuts,  [rihgt] koji cured vegetables – carrots, zucchini, beets, by Jeremy Umansky (photos by Kirsten K. Shockey)

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