Doing Fieldwork on Fermented Foods in the World

(Mar.22-Sep.24, 2022, Nagoya University Museum)

Part 4. Fermented foods as refreshments

Fermented foods can serve as staple foods or as side dishes to compliment the staple, playing a role for humanity as a source of nutrition. Japan, however, has seen a boom in fermented foods in recent years as a means of boosting immune strength. In Mongolia as well, airag, which is produced by fermenting mare’s milk, is enjoyed for its health benefits. Eating and drinking fermented products in itself is enjoyable, provides a means of communication, boosts relaxation effects, and is anticipated to achieve health benefits. Thus, their use as refreshments beyond the goal of obtaining nutrients is being seen in various places worldwide.

Chapter 10. Why are chili peppers originally from Americas used in rice fermentation starters in Southeast Asia?*

Why is it that in traditional Old World fermentation technology we find the inclusion of chili peppers from the New World? Perhaps we can gain some new insights by taking a look at Southeast Asian liquor production from the perspective of chili pepper researchers.

In some parts of Southeast Asia, fermented liquor and distilled spirits are being produced by traditional methods even now, and what is needed for that is mochi-koji (malt-fermented rice cake). Mochi-koji is made by crushing uncooked rice that has been soaked in water in advance, adding various plant materials and forming it into cakes. It was already being used in China 3,000-4,000 years ago.

Lao hai imbibed through bamboo straws

If mochi-koji is pulverized into a fine powder and mixed with boiled or steamed rice, and that is put into a jug and allowed to ferment for a certain period of time, the product is fermented liquor. In mainland Southeast Asia, this is called lao hai (jug liquor).

The jug’s mouth is sealed with a kneaded mixture of ashes and water. For drinking, that is removed, the jug is filled just to the brim with water and a bamboo straw is stuck into the jug and clanked around to mix the mash with the water. Then the liquor is sipped through the bamboo straw.

Lao hai tastes similar to Japanese saké. At first the flavor is strong (the alcohol content is also high), but water is added as it is drunk, so that it gradually becomes weaker. Once it becomes too watery, it is finished up.

■ Why are chili peppers used in mochi-koji?

Chili peppers are used as an ingredient of mochi-koji in Southeast Asia. Chili peppers, however, are a crop that originated in the New World, so at first we could not understand why they are being used in traditional koji production in the Old World. Therefore, we looked into plants being used in mochi-koji in Cambodia.

Thereupon we learned that there was notable usage of sweet plants such as sugar cane, Albizia species (silk plants), and cinnamon species, and spicy plants such as chili peppers, garlic, ginger, nutmeg, and cloves. In fact, the same plants or close relatives of those used in Cambodia for mochi-koji are used similarly in all Southeast Asian countries, including Laos, Myanmar, Malaysia, etc., as well as India and Nepal.

When we asked people in Cambodia why chili peppers were used in mochi-koji, they said it was because the fermented liquor made using that mochi-koji came out hot, spicy, and strong. In looking at the other plants besides chili peppers used in mochi-koji, they really included nothing but hot or strongly stimulating spices of Old World origins.

It is not well established when mochi-koji spread throughout Southeast Asia, but it is said that at latest around the 9th century, mochi-koji was brought into Indonesia by Chinese traders. This, however, was well prior to the arrival of chili peppers in Southeast Asia (400-500 years ago), so it can be speculated that mochi-koji using various spices of Old World origins was being used in all parts of Southeast Asia.

Later on, chili peppers that had been brought to Southeast Asia came into use as a spice, so they could have become incorporated as one traditional element (a spice) of traditional production techniques. In other words, the use of chili peppers in mochi-koji is likely to have arisen in Southeast Asia multilaterally.

* The English title has slightly been changed from the panel.