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Fermented Li and Chou Beverages

by Jacqueline M. Newman


Fall Volume: 2013 Issue: 20(3) page(s): 11 and 12

The Chinese used to refer to only two kinds of fermented beverages, li and chiu. The first was a sweet low-alcohol, short on fermentation, the second a longer ferment with more alcohol. Neither are new, both were frequently imbibed, and both were popular for medicinal purposes. In addition, both were used making sauces or main dishes.

What are these two ferments? One can find them in a collection of poems, songs, and stories called the Shi Qing, dated circa 1100 to 600 BCE. There, they are written about along with glimpses of the physical, philosophical, and ordinary lives of people in those times. Several Chinese historians we spoke to say these old fermentations are more sophisticated than given credit for.

Conflicting opinions do exist about their fermentation techniques and their uses. We read they were used to produce seasonings and pastes such as tou shi. Many were made using soy beans, wheat, and fungal enzymes, mostly for alcoholic beverages. But there were some made into dry cakes or as granules to flavor fruits, vegetables, meats, fish, poultry, and other foods. Some used the mei plum in their mix. Others were inoculated and fermented with or without spices and staple foods such as millet or rice. Many did not start out drinkable but did become liquids over time.

Some were prepared with salt, onions, garlic, leeks, and ginger, and were not intended to be sweet. Many became a chiang or sauce popular in dishes prepared for the table, with or without a mite of sugar. Mentioned as early as the late Zhou Dynasty which ended in 221 BCE, the best of them were called hai and used in meat or fish dishes. The literature we came across said they were watched over by a superintendent of sauces.

Chinese literati do not say a lot about their use in alcoholic beverages and less about the fermentation of liquids intended for dishes to be consumed at meals. It is not known why they wrote so little about their use in sauces, cakes, and other dishes. We know little about their texture in different foods, the many ways they used them, and specifically exactly how they did.

Mixed cultures of fungi and yeast in the form of chiu or li are often fifteen or sixteen percent alcohol. Nowadays we call them wines. Fermentation can also occur using molds such as Aspergillus oryzae, other Aspergillae, Rhizopus oryzae, Rhizopae, Mucor mucado, Monascus, Penicilliae, or yeasts such as Saccaromyces, Monilla and related families, and bacteria such as Acetobacter, Lactobacillae, and those in the Clostridium family. All of these make alcohols from the saccharification of starches and sugars they act upon; and all can be used in beverages and solid foods.

We may never know the exact dates or the exact ingredients used in the past, but we do know the results produce many different tastes, even items of different colors. Remaining critical questions include: Which ones improve which foods;; Which were preferred for each of them; Do current chefs know which ones to buy, Which ones to cook with, and Which ones they still use?

In a large Asian market, these days, there are myriads of bottles and containers with different fermented liquids, semi-liquids, even solids. Some are finished or almost finished sauces. Consumers care more about their taste than their age or alcohol content. They should care more about the many ways to use them and which are best with which added ingredients. We do not know what or how cooks of the past decided which ones to use for which dishes. But we do have a suggestion about how to figure that out today.

We suggest purchasing three similarly fermented items to compare with each other and/or with other known finished products. Never mind how fermented or their texture at the time of purchase. Make one big dish and divide it into four smaller batches, then add a known amount of each new fermented item and one other already in your use. After the garlic, ginger, and other seasonings are divided and incorporated among them, finish each one adding the newly purchased fermented sauces, pastes, or beverages. Next add vegetables and/or meats. Now taste each one, one at a time. Rank order them best to least tasty. Discard the one liked least. Make notes of your preferences and why. This helps better understand the newly purchased fermented foods.

On a future occasion, again buy, but only two fermented products. Repeat this test using the most preferred item from the previous test session, and when done, again discard the least liked one. Keep shopping and comparing until there is no question which one you like the best. Because much of the alcohol evaporates in cooking, it matters not which began as a high or a low alcohol ferment. Continue until there are several personal pleasers, having discarded those not to your liking.

Pictured here is a sauce new to us that we purchased along with others on a recent trip to an Asian market. We found it piquant and perfect with spare ribs and other cooked meats, less so with chicken or fish, and just OK with steamed vegetables.

We often do this type of experimentation, and have for more than thirty-five years. That is where our expanding knowledge of different brands and kinds of fermented foods come from. This is why we know which one or ones go best with which type or types of dishes.

This new-to-us item, kecap sambal, is a fermented soy sauce made by Kokita of Indonesia. Our Chinese colleagues from that country tell us this fermented soy is popular there. They like its red chili peppers, shallots, and cooking oil flavors. They tolerate its preservative, sodium benzoate, and find it does not distract from its taste.

This Malaysian-Chinese-Indonesian sauce is also made by other companies and can be spelled Ketjap Sambal. We now love it in many different dishes, prefer this particular brand, have tried several others, and do use it often. We never would have known this if we did not do tastings as just described.

We have also used several ABC products for months. The ABC brand is the world's second largest soy sauce brand. We do not like all their products. However, we do adore the one with the yellow label. We know that ABC foods are made by a subsidiary of the Heinz company, and do suggest you try their red and green labels, too.

These are dozens upon dozens of brands manufactured in the many different Asian countries, China included. Those by the name of Pearl River are made in China, those called Kimlan come from Taiwan. San-J ferments theirs in Middletown, New York, and soon others will come from North Dakota.

There is need for continued tasting and comparing. Some say those called Kecap are sweet and fermented primarily for dipping. However, if you like a sauce cooked in a dish, feel free to use it that way. Actually, you can use it any way you prefer. Do not be a slave to what manufacturers or friends tell you. Test them yourself. Fermentation changes taste and texture, and you need to try every one. Some brands are thickened, some cooked down, some with added chili peppers, shallots, and other ingredients. We used to say we did prefer those made with no preservatives, and sometimes that is still true, but not always. We sometimes make these sauces ourselves, and you can, too.

What follows are instructions to guide you in the process, albeit with little to no fermentation. They are a guide for how to go about that. Do try our kecap sambal below.

KECAP SAMBAL OUR WAY means taking six tablespoons of dark soy sauce and mixing it with a teaspoon or more of chili powder, then adding three minced red or green hot chili peppers, and a minced shallot or two. Pour this into a dark green glass bottle and refrigerate it. Use it as a cooking or a dipping sauce.

Sometimes we pour it or another commercial Kecap Sambal over meats or vegetables when stir-frying them. Often we do so just before serving them. If planning to keep this recipe or others for more than one or two weeks, do pour it into a sterilized glass jar and refrigerate it. We often make it, and sometimes we prefer some store-bought brands. Go ahead, be your own test kitchen expert to make sauces you like.

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