Like the bread, wine, dairy, and other fermentations described in earlier chapters, Asian-type fermented foods also evolved thousands of years ago. In addition, these Asian fermented foods had many of the same general characteristics and properties as those that developed in Middle Eastern and Western cultures. That is, the products were comprised of ingredients native to their geography, they had enhanced functional properties, and they were well preserved. Likewise, Asian fermented foods were also subject to cultural, economical, and religious influences.
Despite these similarities, the starting materials, the specific types of products produced in the Far East, and the means by which fermentation occurs are dramatically different from products that evolved in the West. Also, whereas the fermented foods industry in Westernized countries, and especially in the United States, have become large, mechanized, and technologically well defined, production methods for fermented foods in the Orient vary greatly, with many small manufacturers still in operation. The trend toward large-scale production, however, has now become evident in China, Japan, Malaysia, Thailand, Korea, and many other Far East countries.
One of the main differences between the fermented foods that evolved in West and those that evolved in the Far East was that the latter populations depended far less on animal products. Several reasons likely accounted for this difference. First, religions practiced in the Orient often excluded meat products and instead promoted diets based on plant proteins. Buddhism, for example, which developed in the sixth century B.C.E., prohibited animal foods in the diet. Second, that the Far East was generally more densely populated meant that less space could be devoted to animal agriculture so greater emphasis was placed on growing plant foods for human consumption. In addition, economic pressures led to greater reliance on inexpensive food commodities, such as cereals, grains, and legumes. Finally, the ready availability of fish and seafood provided an abundant source of inexpensive, high-quality protein.
The other major differences between fermented foods of the West and East relate directly to the fermentation substrates, the manner in which the fermentations occur, and the types of microorganisms that are involved. The substrates used for the fermented foods of the West, for example, are usually simple sugars, whereas in many of the Asian-type fermentations, the substrates consist largely of carbohydrates in the form of starch and other polysaccharides. There are, for example, little if any free fermentable sugars present in rice and soybeans. Therefore, the manufacture of the Asian fermented products must start with a step that converts the starch to sugars that can be used by fermentative organisms. In the West, there is one product that shares this problem—beer.
As described in Chapter 9, the conversion of starch to free sugars is catalyzed by various amy-lolytic enzymes present in malt during a step called mashing. The free sugars, mainly maltose and glucose, are then readily fermented to ethanol and carbon dioxide by yeasts. In the production of Asian fermented products, a very similar mashing process occurs, with one significant difference. The enzymes necessary for saccharification (i.e., starch hydrolysis) are supplied not by malted cereals, but rather by fungal organisms, previously grown on cereal matter. Like malt, the production of this enzyme-laden fungal material is itself an important part of the overall manufacturing process.
Another important difference between fermented foods of the East and West, as noted above, concerns the very nature of the fermentation. For the most part, dairy, meat, vegetable, and ethanolic fermentations are conducted under predominantly anaerobic conditions. In contrast, aerobic conditions are necessary (at least, for certain critical parts of the process) to produce many of the Asian fermented products. Moreover, whereas pure starter cultures, containing defined strains, are now well accepted and widely used for most fermented food products in the West, defined cultures are infrequently used (except by large manufacturers) in the production of Asian fermented foods. Finally, although fungi are used in the manufacture of a few Western-type fermented foods, such as some cheeses and sausages, they are essential in most of the Asian fermented foods. In fact, the food products described in this chapter are often referred to simply as fungal-fermented foods.
It should be noted that the consumption of Asian fermented or fungal-derived foods is no longer confined to Asia or Asian populations. Chinese foods have long been part of the Western cuisine, but in the past two decades, Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese, Indonesian, Korean, and other cuisines from the Far East are now widely consumed throughout the world. It is remarkable, however, that few consumers realize that so many of these foods contain, as primary ingredients or constituents, fermented foods products. Perhaps even more surprising is that many of the Asian fermented foods have captured a large part of the U.S. ethnic foods market, such that many of these products, including tempeh, miso, kimchi, and fish sauce, are available in American grocery and specialty food stores. Due to the savory, meat-like flavor some of the products impart,they have also become popular as vegetable-based meat substitutes (as "faux" meats). There are now several manufacturing facilities in the United States that produce these products, and their popularity is predicted to increase in coming years.
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