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Celebrate a World of Flavors

Terry Passano, RDN, LDN, CLT – University Dietitian

March is National Nutrition Month. Join us as we celebrate with this year’s theme: Celebrate a World of Flavors. We take a look at the uniqueness of herb and spice blends from around the world and the use of fermented foods.

Join us in the Commons for a sampling of traditional probiotic foods on Wednesday, March 9, and a World of Flavors meal on Tuesday, March 15. Both are presented by University of Maryland Eastern Shore dietetic interns.

Fermented Foods From Around the World

From Asia to Australia and the Americas, traditional dishes have included fermented dairy, vegetables, meats, fish and grains into beverages and foods for thousands of years. Fermentation was used to preserve the harvest and extend the life of food, providing food in leaner times, such as winter. Fermentation also makes foods easier to digest and provides unique benefits to health. It just so happens that these fermented bacteria-containing foods are also potent providers of health-supportive nutrients known as probiotics and prebiotics.

Probiotics and prebiotics are essential for our gut health or microbiome. These tiny bacteria are busy supporting us in many ways. Much of our immune system’s defenses are dependent on a diverse microbiome. Imbalances in gut bacteria have been linked to health problems such as mood disorders, obesity and chronic disease. Gut bacteria manufacture vitamins such as B and k and work to improve the bioavailability of nutrients. That means the gut helps us use the foods we eat to support the work our body needs to do. As our ancestors worked to preserve food for the winter, they also created foods that build and support the bacteria population of our microbiome.

Not all fermented foods have active cultures, and so are not probiotic. Sourdough bread, for example, is made with an active yeast culture, but it is killed in the baking process. Other traditionally fermented foods may not have active cultures due to modern practices such as pasteurization. These include some pickles and sauerkraut, among others. Always check food labels for active culture.

Most cultures have traditional fermented foods. Some of these you are familiar with, such as yogurt and kimchee, others haven’t entirely made it into the mainstream.

Some Traditional Cultured Fermented Foods

  • Natto and miso are fermented soy traditionally made in Japan. I’ve heard natto is an acquired taste. This young man is a fan.
  • Miso is found in many Asian dishes. You may have had miso soup at your favorite sushi restaurant. The salty, deep savory flavor of miso adds an umami boost to foods. Get inspired by these recipes.
  • Tempeh is fermented soybeans packed into a loaf form that can be added to a stir fry or served on its own. Tempeh is rich in prebiotic fiber and protein and provides protective antioxidants.
  • Kimchee is cabbage, radish and other vegetables fermented in their own juices. It is eaten at most meals in Korea.
  • Poi is mashed taro root left to ferment into a thick sweet and sour paste. It remains a staple starch in Hawaii.
  • Kefir, from Eastern Europe, is fermented milk, similia to yogurt.
  • Rakfisk, from Norway, is trout sprinkled with salt and fermented in water for up to a year. It is especially popular around Christmas and has a powerful and distinctive odor. Experience it with Gordon Ramsey.

Fermented Foods Easily Found on Grocery Store Shelves

The American pallet may not be drawn to natto or rakfisk, but plenty of cultured and fermented foods are available to complement our plates while supporting our health and microbiome. In addition to the suggestions below, which are easily found at most grocery stores, search for local specialty stores such as this one in Berlin – or this one in Ocean City.

  • Cultured Dairy – yogurt, kefir, cottage cheese, buttermilk, sour cream
  • Fermented Soy – miso, tempeh
  • Fermented Vegetables – sauerkraut, kimchee and other vegetables
  • Fermented Tea – kombucha

Always look on the label for active live cultures.

More on the Microbiome

International Spices Blends

What’s the one thing that separates dishes from one part of the world from another? Besides using local foods, perhaps the most distinctive feature is the unique blends of herbs and spices, which provide antioxidants and many anti-inflammatory properties. A sprinkling of herbs on a salad or adding a spice mix to a vegetable or meat dish will up beneficial antioxidants and support a healthier you.

Think curry from India or Asia, island jerk spices and the aromatic herbs of the Mediterranean. Below are some spice mixes from around the world that will please your senses and nourish your body.

Za'atar - A Middle Eastern blend of thyme, sesame seeds and sumac. Take a look into this Lebanese Za'atar farm.

Herbs de Provence – A blend of herbs that grow abundantly in Southern France. This herb blend fits well with vegetables, salads and poultry. It is found at the grocery store or create your own blend, such as this one.

Quatre Epices, meaning “four spices,” is a rich and savory spice blend, found in many French kitchens. It includes ground black and/or white pepper, cloves, nutmeg and ginger. It is used with savory dishes, such as this hearty beef stew, as well as desserts.

Curry is a blend of spices. Curry blends vary by kitchen and country. Premade blends are easily found in the grocery store or put your spin on things starting with this recipe.

Jerk Seasoning – This popular Caribbean seasoning tastes great and provides powerful antioxidants. It includes a mixture of black pepper, allspice, cinnamon and thyme.

Chinese Five Spice – This traditional blend often appears in pork or poultry dishes. The spice mixture contains cinnamon, fennel seed, star anise and cloves. The fifth spice differs among blends between white or black pepper and ginger. Check out this site for traditional and fusion recipes using Chinese five spice.