Probiotic Foods: Amazake
Over the last few months you might have noticed the warm sweet rice beverage served at the end of your treatment. This lovely concoction is called Amazake, a Japanese fermented beverage traditionally served to temple and shrine visitors at New Years.
This simple drink consists of only three ingredients - rice, koji and water. Koji is the same culture used to make miso, natto, soy sauce, and sake. In fact the process for making sake is very similar, the fermentation process is just stopped before the stage at which alcohol is generated.
Similar to miso and natto, amazake is a probiotic food - which means it is packed with beneficial microorganisms that breakdown proteins into smaller, more easily absorbable pieces. These same microorganisms are also critical to maintaining a healthy microbiome - which has been linked to digestive health, immunity, allergies, and mental health. If you are new to the topic of the gut microbiome, I wrote a short piece a few months ago - please check out my past blog post here.
A very special feature of amazake is the fact that this fermentation actually becomes sweet. Most people familiar with fermentation know most things become sour when fermented - sauerkraut, pickles, and kimchi for example. This presents a bit of a challenge for my patients who do not enjoy sour foods - which I find very common in New York. So for those patients, amazake is a great probiotic food alternative!
It is possible to purchase amazake at your local Japanese market, I have purchased pre-made packets of amazake in a plastic bag from the Sunshine Market in the past. But once I learned how easy and cheap it is to make, plus the opportunity to tweak it to my own personal specifications and tastes - there really was no reason not to. And I would like to share this with you too. Let's all make amazake and feed our microbiomes!
I find the easiest way to make amazake is with a rice cooker. If you don't have a rice cooker, you can use a yogurt maker - you just might need to play with it a bit to make sure it doesn't get too hot or cold - the rice koji needs to be kept between 125 - 140 degrees Fahrenheit to ferment properly.
You will also need to get the three main ingredients:
The culture used in making amazake.
This is the brand of rice Koji I like to use. It is easy to find in Japanese grocery stores. I really like the packaging of Cold Mountain because you can keep your koji after using enough for one batch without transferring (and potentially contaminating) it into another container.
This is another common brand of rice Koji. I have used it but find it a little fluffy and harder to store. But I did start out with Cold Mountain so I may be biased by what I worked with first.
Step 1: Make Rice
Make a batch of fresh cooked white rice. I stay pretty traditional and use a short grain white sushi rice. I like prepare two cups of uncooked rice, I feel like that is a good amount of rice to start with.
After the rice is completely cooked, let it cool down all the way. Fresh cooked rice is too hot and will kill your Koji.
Step 2: Mix Rice and Koji
Once the cooked rice is completely cool, add 1 cup of Koji and mix well.
Step 3: Add water and ferment
Once the rice and Koji are well mixed, add enough water to cover most of the rice.
In the first picture below, you will see how much water I tend to start with. I like to check on it every couple of hours and I add water if it starts to look too dry. You want to play with the amount of water a little bit because if you start with a lot of water right from the start, you may end up with thin, watery amazake. Amazake should be thicker than water but thinner than porridge.
Once the proper amount of water is added to the rice and Koji mixture, I set my rice cooker to the "Keep Warm" setting but do NOT close the rice cooker. I will then place a towel over the rice cooker. Finally I add a loose fitting lid on top of that. This is because a closed rice cooker would be too hot but an open but loosely covered rice cooker is just right. See what I mean about playing with it to get the temp just right?
After about 6-8 hours, your rice should begin to look like it is melting into the water. See the difference between the first and third picture below?
Step 4: Remove from heat, serve and store
Once you have the consistence you like (the longer you let it ferement, the thinner it will become) and remove and serve. Store left overs in an air tight container and refrigerate for 3-4 days.
On especially cold days, I like to add a few spices to my amazake - cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg are a few of my favorites. Remember, the koji will turn the rice carbohydrates into sugars, so don't add any sweetener!
Give it a try and let me know how it goes in the comments below. I'd love to hear what you think and how you like to enjoy your amazake!
One of the biggest new topics in health and wellness over the last decade has centered around the subject of probiotics and a healthy microbiome. I personally find this subject exciting and facinating because it a crossroads where medical science and traditional customs overlap.
A microbiome refers to the "community of microorganisms" that resides in and on all multi-cellular organisms. A microbiome is made up of bacteria, archaea, protists, fungi and viruses that maybe commensal, symbiotic or pathogenic individually but collectively establish a sybiotic relationship with the host to maintain homeostatis - a fancy way of saying "in balance". Recent studies have shown the microbiome plays a significant role in maintaining hormonal, metabolic and immunological homeostasis (balance) in the body. Now doctors are linking damaged microbiomes with conditions including inflamatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome, obesity, type II diabetes, immune cell development and maturation, allergies and even autism.
While the microbiome is generally stable within individuals over time, the composition can be altered due to external factors - one major factor being antibiotic use. Antibiotics have a profound effects on the microbiome. We know overuse of antibiotics leads to the development of antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria that can hide in our gut. Now there is a growing body of compelling evidence showing the microbiome undergoes major alterations in terms of which individual microorganisms remain and what percentage of the microbiome they comprise.
Although the particular affects of repeated antibiotic use vary among individuals, it is clear that some microbiomes do not recover - even months after treatment. In general there is a long-term decrease in bacterial diversity in the gut, and this altered microbiome composition reduces the the micorbiome's ability to resist colonization of foreign microbes. The balance of commensal, symbiotic and pathogenic organisms is lost giving way to permanent changes to the structure of the microbiome. Further studies have been able to identified specific differences in microbiome composition in patients according to specific ailments. For example, early colonization with lactobacillus lpp is correlated with a decrease in allergy symptoms.
The term probiotic is often used to refer to dietary supplements consisting of "live microorganisms" for the purpose of adding healthy microbes to your microbiome. While probiotic supplements have flooded the shelves of health food stores recently, probiotic-rich foods are actually nothing new. Humans have a long history of preparing fermented, probiotic rich foods if you look closely at traditional methods of food preparation.
Most folks are familiar with fermented dairy products like yogurt, kefir, sour cream, and cheese. When prepared traditionally, these foods each employ a specific microorganism to ferment milk and are thus loaded with beneficial microorganisms. Unfortunately manufactured dairy products often use so many additives to sweeten and augment texture that store bought versions often become a nutritional wash out.
Pickled foods like kimchi, sour kraut, and pickles made without vinegar are also probiotic foods - typically using lactobacillus, a ubiquitous anaerobic bacteria to preserve vegetables. It creates that signature pickled sour flavor without added vinegar. Again, efforts to standardize flavor and create shelf stability often circumvent the fermentation process thus eliminating the probiotic benefits of these foods when purchased in stores.
Even sour dough breads are probiotic, using a "proof" or a live colony of microorganisms to raise the dough rather than yeast. Of course preservatives and long times in transportation and on store shelves limits the probiotic benefits of store bought versions of these foods. In my opinion, one of the biggest factors why European countries who maintain the practice of eating freshly baked sour dough breads do not see the issues with gluten sensitivity is because their bread is fresh and still probiotic rich. In the US, most bread for sale is old, preserved, and essentially "dead".
Fermented probiotic rich drinks have been around throughout history - beer, wine, liquors, ginger brew, root beer, kombucha, and tabicos are all beverages that utilize fermentation to produce flavor, alcohol and bubbles. Of course alcohol which comes from a longer fermentation process, will generally reduce the health benefits from alcoholic probiotic beverages. Traditionally made ginger brew and root beer were fermented spiced and herbed drinks, carbonated by the gases produced in the fermentation process. Modern soft drinks are not fermented - instead they use carbonic acid to create bubbles, cutting out the probiotics and a increasing the acidity of the beverage.
Miso, natto, sake and amazake are traditional Japanese fermented foods that use Koji (aspergillum oryzae) as the fermenting agent. While Japanese producers are much better at preserving the probiotic benefits of their traditionally fermented foods, it is crucial to pay attention to temperature when preparing them. For example, miso should not be made in water hotter than 195 degrees - or you will kill the koji with heat. This means miso soup should never be made with boiling water, which is at least 212 degrees.
It is my strong personal belief that probiotic foods are better than probiotic supplements. After all, if the point is to populate your gut with live microorganisms, how alive can they really be after months in a refrigerator or on a store shelf? Unfortunately these days, most city and suburban folks have lost the kitchen skills to prepare and maintain probiotic rich fermented foods. While not overly complex, fermenting foods does require some knowledge and practiced skill. But with a little practice, you can be making your own versions of probiotic rich foods to maintain a healthy microbiome.
In an effort to spread and maintain the knowledge and skills around fermenting foods, I will begin to share my experiences with making probiotic rich, traditionally prepared foods with you. I hope to inspire your love to probiotic foods too!
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