The process of fermentation has formed the bedrock of homegrown entities such as Taboocha and Penicillin. And if you aren’t already with the funky-fresh (or, specifically not fresh) programme, here’s why fermented is the future.
Approximately three years ago, when the disproportionate amount of time the world was spending in mandated isolation prised from our collective psyche a truly of-the-times interest in hobbies like, say, kneading sourdough from scratch, fermentation – alongside vernaculars like SCOBY and allicin – snuck into mainstream conversation. Or, you were simply a big fan of Bon Appétit’s Brad Leone for his zany, fermentation-themed It’s Alive franchise, in which case, you were most likely already a pickling maestro, pandemic be damned.
But for Lisa Lam, founder and lead brewer of homegrown kombucha brand Taboocha, fermentation has long held a place of repute in her life, catalyst for turning passion project into a thriving business. And, like most passion-turned- careers, Taboocha was born from something that worked. Something that really worked.
“I was suffering from poor digestion for a few years,” Lam remembers, “So my friend taught me how to make kombucha.” Her first-ever batch was sipped with a hefty measure of scepticism. But still, she persevered. “I found that drinking it regularly did help improve my gut health. Now I rarely, if ever, get an upset stomach.”
And, quite simply put, the process of fermentation has everything to do with change. “Kombucha is fermented with brewed tea, sugar and a mother culture called SCOBY,” explains Lam. “It’s an aerobic fermentation process that takes around one to eight weeks dependent on the type of tea, recipe and fermenting temperature. Through this process, the sweetened tea is digested by the mother culture and transformed into acids, enzymes and healthy bacteria, which gives kombucha its distinct fermented, funky, sweet and sour taste, which tastes very different from the tea itself.
“A lot of people mix up kombucha with cold-brew tea or carbonated tea, but kombucha tastes entirely different because of the fermentation process,” she adds. “Through fermentation, the tea is transformed and may contain new tasting notes that are different from the original tea.”
It’s the same depth of flavour that separates cabbage from kimchi, cucumbers from pickles and milk from yoghurt. Fermented jasmine green tea, Lam reveals, can even hold notes of green grapes. “It’s fun to see how fermentation can transform a tea and elevate it into a different drink,” she says.
Another mecca of fermentation here in Hong Kong is nestled in the white-tiled square-footage of Penicillin, a closed-loop, eco-conscious bar a flight of stairs from Hollywood Road. Launched by bar veterans Agung Prabowo, Roman Ghale and their partners Laura Prabowo and Katy Ghale in 2020, Penicillin is already award-winning for its sustainability thesis, receiving the Ketel One Sustainable Bar Award for Asia’s 50 Best Bars in 2021.
“Sustainability and fermentation come in parallel,” says Saan Dhakal, Penicillin’s sustainability and operations manager. “If you’re really serious about doing sustainability, you have to be doing fermentation as well.”
Categorically serious about both, Penicillin has built within its space a glass-doored chamber specifically for fermentation, lovingly christened the Stinky Room. Within it, a temperature-controlled HakkoBako system floods the space in a quiet white light for any fermentation projects that require a little more sensitivity; it’s cleverly phone app-controlled.
“Even from the very beginning, we knew we really wanted to build a fermentation room,” says Dhakal. “Fermentation is a process used by a lot of bartenders, but it’s never something that’s highlighted this openly. We wanted guests to be able to see what we were doing with our fermented ingredients.”
Well beyond Taboocha’s funky flavours and gut-healthy modus operandi, Pencillin’s fermentation-forward practice also, of course, prioritises funky flavours – though with less on the health front; “Well, nothing is healthy, if you drink too much,” Dhakal says with a laugh – while tendering a little more towards the time-tested: fermentation as a means of preservation.
“Since we’re in the sustainability business, we have a lot of leftovers from our own bar and kitchen,” says Dhakal, “but also from neighbourhood restaurants and other bars. Fermentation lets us convert these leftovers into something we can reuse in future.”
These leftovers might be pineapple rinds from bars that only make use of the pineapple flesh, husks from lemon, lime and, sometimes, passionfruit, or ground coffee, which, several menus ago, materialised in a concoction fermenting coffee with chicken broth. (It’s still Dhakal’s favourite creation.) And from the autumn/winter menu, Healing Grounds, he explains, is made from fermenting leftover milk collected fastidiously from nearby cafes. “Every time you order a cappuccino in any coffee shop, there’ll always be a small amount of milk leftover after the pour,” he explains. “And on average, there’s at least five to six litres of milk thrown away at these coffee shops every single day.
“Same goes for rice, actually,” Dhakal says, as the collected-leftover rice is then fermented into koji, used to marinate Penicillin’s shio-koji fried chicken. “You can also collect citrus pulp and stock, put it in the fermentation room for a couple of weeks and whatever liquid is generated through fermentation can be used as a cleaning agent,” says Dhakal, calling the myriad fermentation applications “multifunctional fermentation”.
“There are just so many things you can do through fermentation.”