My favourite thing about food is sharing. Food is one of the few things that brings people together in this world. Everyone has to eat, and eating together is always better than eating alone. Some of my closest friendships were made over food and the diverse conversation the topic of food can ignite.
So I was delighted to discover the tradition of kefir sharing in Chile. Most of you, especially those of you swept up by the trendy, healthy lifestyle wave, will probably be familiar with kefir. You can buy it in health food shops or organic supermarkets in Sydney nowadays… if you’re willing to pay an arm and a leg. But for those who aren’t, kefir is a drink similar to yoghurt made from inoculating sheep, goat or cow milk with “kefir grains”; a wonderful symbiotic relationship between yeast and lactic acid bacteria. Studies show this is a drink packed with vitamins, minerals and probiotic goodies and it’s super easy to make. Kefir originated in Eastern Europe and potentially arrived in Chile with migrants from the Ottoman Empire. It is thought that traditionally people fermented kefir in skin sacks suspended in the door way so people would knock it when they walked through the door, keeping the grains and the milk well homogenised.
Here, kefir goes by the name of “pajaritos” meaning little birds. It’s common to see them fermenting on someone’s kitchen bench. Normally, if someone wants a starter, they’ll know someone who has, or knows someone else who has, a batch brewing they can get some from. These little beauties grow fast in hot weather, feeding off the sugars and other components in the milk. So in summer it’s common to have excess grains to give away. None of this overpriced, small-packaged nonsense in fancy, upper-class shops! Producers in Australia must be making a packet from those health-crazed Sydneysiders…
If you’re lucky enough to have your own batch of pajaritos, here’s some tips for keeping them healthy and some ideas for incorporating kefir into your day to day diet:
- For best results and kefir health, ferment in a non-reactive container such as a glass (I have mine in an old jam jar) or ceramic. Same goes for when you are straining them; use a plastic sieve and spoon instead of metal.
- Fermentation can take between 24 hours and several days depending on the temperature. If you keep it on the kitchen bench, leave it out of the sun to prevent drying and denaturing of the proteins. In summer in Santiago de Chile we’ve been averaging temperatures of 30 degrees so I’ve been straining the pajaritos almost every day, yielding a pretty decent daily supple of kefir. My digestive system is working a treat!
- If you want to slow down the fermentation process, pop the batch in the fridge. Cooler temperatures result in slower reaction times. This is handy if you are going away for a weekend or your pajaritos are working faster than you can drink.
- Kefir is suitable for people who are lactose intolerant. Because the bacteria is a lactic acid bacteria most of the lactose in the milk is broken down to lactic acid during the fermentation process. The yeast also converts some lactose to carbon dioxide and ethanol. No, you can’t get drunk off kefir; the ethanol content is usually less than 1 percent.
- If you’re worried about fat content, have no fear. These guys will ferment full cream or reduced fat milk.
- There are so many ways to use kefir in your daily diet. I keep stumbling on new recipes and ideas. Here are my favourites:
- Great, cheap substitute for yoghurt to pour over cereal, fruit or in smoothies
- Can be used in baking as a starter for sourdough bread or as a substitute for buttermilk (although it will result in a sourer flavour so keep this in mind if using as a substitute)
- In salad dressings, in cold soups or to tenderise meat instead of yoghurt
- If you are into soaking whole grains like oats and barley before eating, try soaking them in kefir instead of water. Kefir helps remove some of the phytic acid in these guys which potentially decreases mineral absorption during digestion.
- Soaking muesli along with apple juice to make bircher
- Or give your digestive system a morning kick start by drinking a glass of kefir straight up. If it’s too sour you can always add a teaspoon of honey to sweeten things up!
Most importantly, if you have a batch growing in your kitchen, share it with your friends and family! As a recently graduated student I can tell you that there’s nothing like free food. So spread some foodie love and let those pretty pajaritos fly!