How koji adds magic to Indian cuisine


On a warm winter day in early 2019, David Zilber, then fermentation manager at Copenhagen-based restaurant Noma, placed a batch of rice, barley and soy sauce. koji in front of a group of students from the University of Gastronomic Sciences of Pollenzo in Italy. It was the first time that Prachet Sancheti, one of his students, had touched and tasted koji.

“I remember being more taken by soy sauce koji than those of rice or barley. It was richer in umami, tastier because it was rich in protein. Most people found it a little odd, but I liked to snack on it, ”says Goa-based Sancheti, who now makes fermented foods under the Brown Koji Boy name.

Koji, which has only recently made inroads into India, is a crop prepared by cultivating the sporulating mold, Aspergillus oryzae, on cooked cereals such as rice or soybeans in hot and humid conditions. The term comes from Japan, although the earliest mention of it dates back to 300 BCE in China, where it is known as qū. Mold was more successfully domesticated about 2,000 years ago in Japan, where several basic seasonings are made from grains inoculated with koji. Think miso pasta, soy sauce, mirin, and sake.

When the time is right for mold to grow, the spores branch out to form hyphae which expand their tendrils and release a plethora of enzymes that break down starches into simple sugars, proteins into amino acids, and fats into lipids, esters and aromatic compounds. The enzymes released by the hyphae are also responsible for kojithe particular flavor and fruity and floral smells of.

Koji is magic. Science seems so complicated and yet so simple. For me, it had the same impact on food as fire and then salt. It’s the thing that will take cooking to the next level, ”says Bengaluru-based Payal Shah, who calls himself Kōbo Fermentary on Instagram, describes himself as a shepherd of microbes and is hailed as“ the backbone of the world. fermentation in India ”.

Koji has the ability to bring out umami, the fifth taste, in whatever it touches. This, combined with the simple sugars that are released, gives koji– fermented foods have a deep and distinctly rounded flavor – most fermenters attribute their obsession with the microbial powerhouse to its transformative nature. Shah illustrates this with his share of koji– fermented asparagus stalks. “I had kept the pieces of wood from the asparagus to make broth. Once the broth was ready, I strained them and fermented with koji. I left it for a year and at the end it tasted like Italian lemons and Parmesan cheese. You can’t make that up.

Several academic papers have explored the link between the gut microbiome and mental health, immune responses, and even weight loss. Although not all studies are conclusive, it is widely believed, by modern science as well as traditional wisdom, that the bacteria in our gut, reinforced by bacteria in our diet, can have profound effects on our health. “That my gut biome reflects the environment in which I live is a powerful idea for me. It allows me to understand the foods that I prepare and cook myself in a way that I had not thought of before, ”says Ajinkya Dharmapurikar, computer engineer and fermentation enthusiast, based in Pune, Maharashtra.

Barley Koji (Photo: Payal Shah)

It doesn’t take long to stumble upon the world of koji once you’ve been bitten by the fermentation virus. In The noma guide to fermentation, co-authors Zilber and chef René Redzepi write: “It’s almost impossible not to meet him, like going to Paris and not seeing the Eiffel Tower. Since it was difficult to get spores earlier, fermentation enthusiasts like Sancheti, Shah and Dharmapurikar only recently started using mold on native products like poha (flattened rice), chickpeas, vatana (dry peas), korgut and jaya varieties of rice, among others.

Dharmapurikar, self-taught like the others cited here, warns that koji must be treated with respect. “The fungus is most definitely our friend, but its parents are not (due to the chemicals they produce to decimate microbial competitors). So we have to be careful. Anything other than the white, yellow-green sporulation that smells of fruity is dangerous, ”he says, adding,“ At the end of the day, it’s just an organism trying to survive. It will break down starches and proteins. Now the responsibility for experimentation falls to us.

This is what makes the fermentation scene in India both ingenious and impressive. Because it does not just open the doors to Japanese cuisine or other East Asian cuisines, making their main players in flavors more accessible, but truly offers the possibility of reinventing resolutely “Indian” dishes. .

Brown Koji Boy, which delivers to all major cities across the country, offers a range of condiments with local ingredients as protagonists: Maa Ki Dal and Black Rice Miso, Kidney Bean Douchi, Chana Dal Amino Sauce, Goan Pesto (made with miso of cashews, kokum, curry leaves, garlic and coconut oil) and smoked tomato Tamari, among a host of others.

While most of the condiments evoke images of Japanese cuisine: miso soup, ramen, dengaku– in the minds of regular guests, Sancheti pleads for an expansion of their culinary applications. “I recently did khichdi with our spicy chickpea miso. After taking the khichdi off the heat, I added about a tablespoon of miso to enhance the flavor. I also put miso on my dose and have it with podi. It can be incorporated into most recipes, ”he says.

“Work with koji it’s a bit like learning the rules of the game and then breaking them. It’s not about duplicating what someone else is doing. It’s about taking the science of it and then finding ways to make it your own. And it makes sense that we do because we have such amazing products. These choices, this kind of awareness also allow us to make beneficial changes for our health and the environment, ”Shah explains.

Damini Ralleigh is a Delhi-based food writer.

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