On a sunny Los Angeles morning, Jess Wang is in her kitchen checking on her “pets.” “The trick,” explains the ever-gracious Jess, “is not to disturb them too much.” Just like any beloved pet, in exchange for a little care, Jess’s offer many rewards. These pets aren’t the typical furry or winged kind, but rather, they’re of the bacterial sort. They don’t cuddle or play, but they give the gift of health, the rewards of creativity, and they taste great.
Jess is a cook, food advocate, and entrepreneur. A health issue led her from her dream job in pastry to starting a fermentation business. All the while, she’s never compromised on making great food. I chatted with her recently about her journey and why we should all start fermenting.
SL: Hi Jess. I’m excited to talk to you. I love traditionally fermented foods and your work has inspired me to delve deeper into them. How do you describe fermentation to a person who’s new to it?
JW: Fermentation is a natural process in which microorganisms break down and digest organic matter, subsequently producing acidic substances and releasing gases. For thousands of years humans have found ways to preserve food through creating hospitable living conditions for healthy microorganisms in preparations of vegetables, meats, grains, and other types of natural food products. These foods are essential sources of friendly bacteria for the human digestive system, and they taste great too.
SL: Tell me about your food journey since learning about your medical condition.
JW: When I was diagnosed with prediabetes three years ago, my doctor said I could reverse it with a change in diet and exercise. Being prediabetic means one’s blood sugar is higher than what’s healthy (with obvious symptoms), but not so high that medication or insulin shots are necessary. At the time I was working at my dream job in the pastry department of State Bird Provisions in San Francisco. The diagnosis led me to re-evaluate my career. I had worked nearly four years to get there but suddenly it seemed like the wrong place for me. I needed to make healthier food choices. Also, I thought working in a kitchen kept me active enough to pass as exercise but I realized I needed a more focused fitness routine. The experience led me to a state of depression and confusion for a few months.
I still wanted to work in food, and I knew there had to be a way to continue with a transition to savory cooking. My dear friend Rachel Khong who was an editor at Lucky Peach Magazine hired me to test recipes and help with styling, and friends who worked in savory kitchens encouraged me by hiring me for small gigs until I built up the confidence to work on the hot line during dinner service. It was great to distance myself from sugar, but I still had difficulty maintaining a healthy blood sugar level while working on the savory side of the kitchen. We’re so preoccupied with cooking for our guests that we end up skipping meals. Self-care is minimally if ever factored into the culture of commercial kitchens.
When I learned about Food Forward’s Can It! Academy in 2015 through a friend who did the Master Food Preserver Program, I decided to take the course and explore my options in retail food production. I had enjoyed vegetables since I was a child and saw an opportunity in the market for seasonal probiotic pickles. I realized this could be a sustainable path if I were to set up a small business in a smart way. At the moment I’m raising funds for my probiotic pickle company, Picklé. My friends at LASA, Chase and Chad Valencia, are helping with a bake sale fundraiser. I created a line of handpies for it under the brand PIQUE-NIQUE. Funds raised from the bake sales go towards Picklé. In addition to the Valencia brothers, countless other friends have helped along the way. I’m so grateful to them for the community and for getting my back when I was quite lost and feeling desperate. Looking back now I’m ultimately grateful for the turning point in my health and career, which is steadily bringing me to a healthier and happier place.
The Asian Pacific Islander Forward Movement has also helped me in my transition toward healthier living. I found hope volunteering in their community supported agriculture efforts. Joining a sustainable health oriented community gave me the opportunity to contribute to a meaningful cause. I’ve contributed to APIFM hosted healthy food workshops with cooking demonstrations, and we work together to develop and share recipes.
SL: Has fermenting contributed to your wellbeing in ways that are unique to other types of cooking?
JW: Yes! On a psychological/emotional level as well as a physical one. It’s similar to edible gardening, in that there’s an element of wonder in observing life as it does its thing and then rewards you with beautiful, delicious surprises. Then there are the health benefits of probiotic foods. They aid in nutrient absorption and maintain a healthy digestive tract.
SL: How much care does fermenting involve?
JW: It depends on what one is fermenting. For example with kombucha or beer, the care is different than with vegetables. All fermenting requires a very clean environment with controlled temperatures. This means that personal hygiene, clean vessels, and proper preparation of the vegetables are important. Temperature requirements vary depending on the type of project, but simple salt fermented vegetables generally do fine in the low to mid 70s (Fahrenheit). Monitoring additional factors, like making sure the vegetables are always fully submerged in the fermenting medium, whether it’s a liquid brine or a solid material, such as miso, is equally important. When I have a new project going I check on it at least twice a day, daily, until it has reached a suitable maturity level. When ready, they go into the refrigerator for long term storage.
SL: What are some of your favorite vegetables to ferment?
JW: Green beans and their other long relatives! Watermelon rind!
SL: What vegetables are you fermenting at the moment?
JW: Watermelon rind with passionfruit and carrot.
SL: How do you incorporate fermented foods into your meals?
JW: When I eat at home fermented veggies and sauces make it into my meals as seasoning or as side dishes. Since I eat a savory breakfast not much different from what many people eat for lunch, it’s easy to start my day with them. They pack a punch of flavor, so a tiny amount can go a long way. For instance a pinch of minced preserved lemon in a salad dressing or dip will do wonders. Likewise, a couple tablespoons of fermented vegetables with a meal makes an easy and lively addition. I sometimes even add some fermented pickles to a snack.
SL: If someone is interested in fermenting, where would you suggest she begin?
JW: Cabbage is a good vegetable to start with. It’s very easy to clean and prepare, and it’s juicy, so it provides its own brine. I’ll share a kimchi recipe with your readers.
SL: Thanks so much. Is there anything else you’d like to share with us about fermenting?
JW: In addition to flavor and nutrition, another great thing about fermented vegetables is that they offer convenience. Once they’re done fermenting, they’re just waiting there to add interest to your food.
SL: Little flavor bombs waiting on the counter to add instant interest and nutrition? We can all get on board with that.
Jess Wang’s Easy Kimchi Recipe
1 medium head of fresh napa cabbage, about 2 lbs.
about 1 tablespoon salt, or 3% of veggies by weight
scant ½ cup Korean chili pepper
1 bunch spring onion, about ½ cup chopped
10 cloves of garlic
1 - 2 ¼-inch slices of ginger (optional)
1/4 teaspoon fish sauce (optional)
1 pair of kitchen gloves
1 ½ - 2 quart jar with lid
Note: If an entire head of cabbage seems like too much, use half and save the other half for a salad or other dish. Just remember to also split the other ingredients in half!
- Trim stem end of cabbage and remove any outer leaves that appear damaged. Cut cabbage lengthwise, into quarters. Remove tough core. Cut quarters into desired size pieces.
- Toss cabbage with salt in a bowl. Cover with another equally sized or slightly smaller bowl, pressing it into the cabbage. Allow to sit for at least 1 hour at room temperature. (You can also salt overnight in the refrigerator.) When ready the salt will have drawn water from the cabbage, and the cabbage will appear wilty.
- While the cabbage is undergoing the salting process, prepare the carrot, garlic, spring onion, and ginger root. Slice or mince the ginger, cut the carrot into slivers, chop the garlic into small chunks, and cut the spring onion into thin rings or 2-inch segments. The size and shape is up to you, depending on your textural preference.
- Check on the salted cabbage and drain the water, reserving it for later. If the cabbage isn’t already in a bowl that is large enough to mix everything comfortably, transfer it. Put on your gloves and combine all the ingredients, distributing everything evenly. Pack the seasoned mixture into a jar, and press the mixture to ensure it’s fully submerged in its juices. Pour the reserved brine over the packed veggies, keeping about 1 inch of headspace.
- Place the jar of kimchi in a wide bowl to catch any brine that might emerge from the jar during fermentation. Keep the jar in a cool, dry, semi-dark place, like a lower kitchen shelf. Indirect light is okay. Check on the kimchi jar once a day. Release any trapped bubbles. If the veggies aren’t fully submerged, use a clean utensil to press them into the brine. Taste when the mixture appears bubbly and smells more funky, 1-2 days later. When it tastes good to you, refrigerate it to slow down the fermentation process. Enjoy with meals or as a snack, or add to fried rice or soup when it gets super fermented!
Jess Wang is a Los Angeles based fermentation enthusiast and local food advocate. She worked in pastry kitchens for five years before pursuing a more intentional lifestyle with a focus on health and wellbeing. She currently runs PIQUENIQUE, a seasonal hand pie pop up; works at the Filipino inspired restaurant, LASA; and volunteers with the Asian Pacific Islander Forward Movement (APIFM) and Roots Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). Her work through APIFM includes developing recipes using seasonal produce and leading cooking workshops, with an emphasis on making probiotic foods more accessible. Jess’s newest venture is Picklé, a fermented pickle project, through which she seeks to share the joy of vegetables. She’s the recent recipient of a Farm to Chopsticks Award. Find her on Instagram @chinesebeancurd and @piquenique_la.
All images by Jessica Wang