Doing Fieldwork on Fermented Foods in the World

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

Part 1. Fermented foods as staples

When fermented foods as staple foods are mentioned, bread is what comes to mind for many people. We tend to think of bread as something soft and puffy that has been fermented using yeast, but a diversity of bread is seen worldwide. In Ethiopia, there are people who eat a sour, lactic-fermented bread that resembles pancakes as their staple. Moreover, bread is not the only staple that is fermented. Again in Ethiopia, there are also people who drink an alcoholic beverage made from alcohol-fermented grains as their staple. As a means of taking in needed nutrients safely from grains, fermentation has played a major role in humanity’s existence.

Chapter 2. Sustaining life with liquor as a meal: Peoples of Nepal and Ethiopia*

People have been brewing liquor since deep antiquity. Alcoholic beverages have served as a means of building human relationships, manifesting authority, distributing wealth, compensating labor, and providing enjoyment, and there is a wide range of other roles they have played as well. Liquor is also an excellent source of nutrients, and there are cases of food cultures worldwide where liquor is consumed as a staple, including among the Newar people of Nepal and the Dirashe and Konso peoples of Ethiopia.

■ The Newar, who drink rice liquor for meals and as an emergency source of nutrients

The Newar people live in Kathmandu, the capital city of the south Asian nation of Nepal as well as the capital’s surrounding basin areas. A staple of the Newars is the white fermented liquor thwon produced from rice by adding malted rice to convert it to sugars (glycation) and having that undergo alcohol fermentation. As a morning and evening meal, they drink thwon while eating a set menu called dal bhat consisting of steamed rice and lentil soup with spice-fried vegetables or salted boiled greens. They may drink as much as 1.5 to 2 kilograms of liquor a day.

Thwon is also used as an energy drink when nutrients are lacking. During busy seasons in farming such as rice planting and harvesting, more thwon is consumed than dal bhat. The people take thwon with them to the fields and drink it during breaks from farm work. Saying “When dizzy, you should drink thwon. If you drink thwon and rest in the shade, you will feel better,” they take it as an energy drink during times of urgent nutrient deficits.

■ The Konso, for whom sorghum liquor is a staple

Others for whom liquor is a staple include the Konso and Dirashe peoples in the Northeast African nation of Ethiopia. The Konso are an agricultural people living in the southern part of country. They consume cheka, a white fermented liquor made by germinating sorghum grains and converting them to sugars.

The Konso eat three or four meals a day, and with two or three of those, they drink cheka while enjoying side dishes of greens with boiled cereal dumplings, beans, or vegetables. Popular items as side dishes are beans or chili peppers boiled in salt water. Meals are often consumed in the fields, where cheka is consumed as the meal while chewing on chili peppers growing in the fields. Saying “cheka is the best,” and while the Konso people consume a variety of foods, their dietary intake of cheka is the highest, with both young and old, male and female drinking an average of two kilograms a day.

■ The Dirashe, whose sole comprehensive nutritional meal is sorghum liquor

The Dirashe living adjacent to the Konso, on the other hand, add plant leaves to sorghum and have it undergo lactic acid fermentation. Then they add germinating seeds to break it down into sugars and have that undergo alcohol fermentation to produce a green-colored fermented liquor called parshot, which they consume as their staple. They may also eat solid food like cereal dumplings or unleavened bread as a side dish while drinking this liquor, but only scanty amounts of these are consumed. Their liquor consumption may be as high as five kilograms a day. In Dirashe villages, they drink this liquor everywhere--at home, in the public square, at meeting places, in the fields. The Dirashe have a strong love for liquor, saying, “Drinking liquor every day is the essence of happiness.”

■ Healthy despite drinking large quantities of liquor

You may be concerned that drinking so much liquor would have a harmful effect on health. However, in any case where liquor serves as a staple, the concentration of alcohol is kept low, at 4 percent or less, and it is imbibed slowly over time, so it does not cause inebriation and none of these people has suffered health damage from it.

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