So you might remember I developed a little bit of a fermentation fetish this summer, with my first forays into making sauerkraut and kimchi. The taste of my homemade kimchi reminded me of the spicier, more traditional kimchis I ate in South Korea and the milder ones from Japan; I also couldn't avoid thinking about all of the health benefits.
As it turns out, my mom is addicted to fermenting too. She's not so big on spicy stuff, but instead opts for a slightly more bizarre (and, in my opinion, more fascinating) method of consuming those healthy microbacteria: kombucha tea.
You may have heard of kombucha tea, but if not, it is a fermented sweet tea created using a 'kombucha culture.' It is said to afford many beneficial health properties, especially digestive health, but also such diverse effects as relieving arthritis, helping with stress and insomnia, improving eyesight, clearing up the skin, and even enhancing the sense of smell! Clearly there is a small psychological component to the consumption of a drink indentified as a promoter of general well-being. While I'm not sure that I believe kombucha 'sends lupus into remission' (a claim on one website), I do believe in its digestive benefits, and am inclined to trust a drink that has been consumed for thousands of years by many different cultures. It is believed to have originated in China around 212 BC.
A couple of nights ago my mom demonstrated the process of making kombucha.
The first step is to get the kombucha culture. It is often called the 'mother,' and frequently referred to as a mushroom (in Japan kombucha is referred to as kocha kinoko, 'mushroom tea') , though this is not officially a mushroom, but instead a culture composed of bacteria and yeast. You can order these cultures online, or ask around your community, since every batch of kombucha generates extra, usually discarded. It's pretty nasty looking -- a slimy, white circle, often even thicker than the one my mom had (she told me this was an unusually flimsy).
Putting the 'mother' aside, she takes a big wide-mouthed glass jar and pours in a large amount of green tea, already brewed. Most kombucha recipes recommend adding sugar to the tea, as food for the bacteria. The bacterial process that creates kombucha is in part dependent on the reaction between the culture and the chemical composition of green and black teas, so other types of tea are less effective in creating the drink.
She adds a small amount of tea from the previous batch to get the process going. This reminds me of how yogurt is made: milk is heated then mixed with a tablespoon of yogurt, essentially seeding the milk with bacteria that turn it into yogurt.
After stirring, she adds the kombucha mother!
The mother floats inside while the bacterial conversion takes place. It takes 5-7 days. Then, you can remove the 'mother' and peel it apart into two disks, discarding one and keeping the other for a future batch. Kombucha seems to encourage people to keep making it: if you don't immediately make more, the 'mother' will be wasted and you'll have to go to a lot of trouble to get another one from someone else.
I guess I forgot to mention what kombucha actually tastes like: it's kind of like a combination of vinegar and green tea. I admit I was a little grossed out by it at first, but the health properties are intriguing and the vinegary taste is cool and refreshing once you're used to it. You can buy flavored kombucha teas at Ellwood Thompson's or other healthfood stores to see if you like it, but of course making your own is way cheaper. Check out a recipe online if you'd like to make your own. Wild Fermentation, my favorite fermentation book by Sandor Ellix Katz, also has a recipe. Good luck, and happy fermenting!