Those Japanese microbes which make your life longer
Life expectancy in Japan for both women and men is well above world averages. The robust health of the Japanese is often attributed to their healthy diet, in which fermentation plays a key role. It is a preservation method, a digestive aid, and a taste enhancer. Fermentation has attracted the attention of the greatest Western chefs such as René Redzepi of Noma who are using fermentation to explore new flavors and to create umami, the fifth taste after saltiness, sweetness, bitterness, and sourness.
What exactly is fermentation?
At the most basic level, fermentation is the transformation of food by micro-organisms such as bacteria, mold, or yeast. These microbes will break down food molecule chains, making them more digestible and tastier while making the food preserve longer. Take the example of lacto-fermented pickles; the bacteria consume sugars and produce lactic acid which has the effect of acidifying the vegetables and the brine in which they are found. This process results in preserving them and making them tastier. In short, the microbes responsible for fermentation break down complex food molecule chains into simpler food molecules your body needs, making them more digestible, nutritious and delicious.
There are thousands of products made from fermentation, from beer and wine to cheese, saké and soy sauce. They are all very different creations, of course, but they are unified by the same basic process of fermentation.
At the Japanese table
If you like Japanese food, you are already a fan of fermentation. On a typical Japanese table, there are no less than four or five fermented products. The most well-known ones are shoyu (soy sauce) and miso, made from fermented soybeans. You will also find tsukemono which are vegetables pickled in fermented soybean husks as an accompaniment to rice. Sake is made from fermented rice. Natto, fermented soybeans which is very healthy but sticky, has a very strong smell, and is an acquired taste. Research has shown that the consumption of natto and miso is helpful to your health in myriad ways. These traditional foods inspire confidence because they have always been part of the Japanese diet and carry the virtues of both taste and health benefits.
Koji, the miracle fungus
The king of fermentation in Japan is the koji fungus or Aspergillus Oryzae. A noble fungus which landed a millennium ago as a parasite in Japanese rice fields and which the Japanese have since tamed as their favorite fungus. The koji grows in cereals and its strength is multifaceted; it penetrates the grains of rice or barley or soybeans and produces enzymes that break down the proteins, starches and lipids contained in rice and soybeans into free amino acids, simple sugars and fats. This complexity will give rise to umami, the fifth taste, which Western chefs crave. Amino acids are the key to the sweetness of food, making miso, for example, so special to eat. Importantly, amino acids also have anti-aging properties.
The gift of time
At Bizen, we're big fans of fermentation. We've made the residue from rice fermentation our signature active ingredient for the good of your skin because they contain an abundance of amino acids and ceramides released by fermentation. Naturally moisturizing, these ingredients have beneficial antioxidant and anti-aging properties. The proof? The whiteness and young-looking skin of Japanese sake brewers' hands are well known. It is through contact with fermented rice, the magical koji that makes their hands so soft and beautiful.