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Can fermented foods restore your gut health?

In April, three friends opened Onggi, a store on Portland's Washington Avenue selling all things fermented.

PORTLAND, Maine — According to a USDA study, an average American spends 67 minutes per day eating and drinking. That doesn't include the time we spend thinking about, planning, purchasing, and preparing the meals we eat. But how strong is our connection to the food we consume? Do we think about where it came from, how it was made, or the trillions of bacteria that live in it?

Three friends who relocated to Portland in 2020 can't stop thinking about this, especially all those bacteria. 

Marcus Im, Amy Ng, and Erin Zobitz believe the key to a healthy lifestyle is fermented foods. 

Credit: contributed
Amy Ng, Marcus Im and Erin Zobitz

In April, the friends opened their first store together called Onggi on Washington Avenue in Portland. It's a small space, but it's home to their big dreams of showcasing an ancient process in a modern world. 

Fermentation dates back as far as human history, some accounts say 7000 B.C., and nearly every civilization since has some fermented foods as part of its culinary history. 

Im says one of the biggest misconceptions about fermented foods is that, as Americans, we don't eat a lot of them. He points out that wine, beer, coffee, and even chocolate are all fermented foods. 

Fermenting foods, usually by adding salt, pressure, and time, is the process in which a substance like a fruit, vegetable, grain, or milk product breaks down into a simpler substance. Microorganisms like yeast and bacteria usually play a role in the process, changing the texture and taste of food and introducing many healthy microorganisms into our body. Fermented foods also last a long time. The fermentation process makes them safe to eat for months, sometimes years. Grapes become wine, cabbage becomes kimchi, milk becomes yogurt or cheese, and so on and so on.  

Im says people worry they will not know when fermented foods have gone by. 

"Fermentation as a process was invented or came about in the past, from generation to generation because it made food safer to eat. It's a tradition that was originated with the idea of preserving food so if you had food that could potentially go bad what you wound up doing was packing it with salt, fermenting it and it would last essentially forever," Im explained.

He says it's simpler than you might think. If the food smells really off or is covered in mold, of course, it is not safe.

At Onggi, there is a selection of local and imported fermented products like vinegar, soy sauce, misos, hot sauces, and starter kits to do your own at-home fermentation projects. 

Credit: Onggi
Marcus Im making radish kimchi

"I do think fermentation is a bit of a science project where at the end of it you get something really tasty," said Ng, who bakes sourdough chocolate chip cookies and kimchi pastries for the shop. 

"Clearly there are a lot of benefits for your gut help having healthy bacteria in there. Better energy and digestion" cofounder Erin Zobitz said. 

Strengthening the connection to the food we eat is at the core of Onggi and they feel like Portland is a place for them to thrive. 

 "I think part of the challenge of starting a niche business you need to find your people and part of the reason we're here is we think we found our people we think this is our community," Im said. 

Onggi will hold its first free class about fermenting food at home on May 19. 

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