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More than just fermented soybean

More than just fermented soybean

According to the Kirat legend, the black soybean was the first crop cultivated by the people in Nepal. To avoid monotony, they created diverse ways to enjoy it, including raw, boiled, fried, crushed, and even fermented, giving birth to the iconic ‘kinema’.

Agricultural scientist and former principal director of agriculture, Sikkim, Jash Raj Subba mentions in his book ‘History, Culture, and Customs of Sikkim’ that according to the Kirat legend (Mundhum – an oral tradition of the Limbu), the black soybean was the first crop domesticated and cultivated by the Kiratas in this part of the country. The lone cultivated crop was thus consumed in various ways to avoid monotonous eating. They ate it raw, boiled with pods, dry frying, crushing, and fermenting, including the famous kinema.

This means the oldest Nepali fermented food is kinema. Crafting kinema is an age-old tradition passed down through generations. Dried soybeans are first husked, soaked overnight, and then boiled. The boiled soybeans are then smashed and pounded in a mortar and pestle (okhali) and then placed on the Newara leaves (Ficus roxburgh II) and put in a basket to activate microbial activity. After fermentation for a day or two with a mix of microbes and yeasts, particularly Bacillus subtilis, the result is a stringy-sticky mass infused with rich umami and meaty flavors.

Kinema is a food that you either love or love to hate. Many consider kinema smelly and don’t eat it, but some people even pay a higher price to get it. As a traveling research and development chef, I once encountered Natto, a traditional Japanese food made from fermented whole soybeans. But Natto and Kinema are not the same, although they are both fermented soybean products. 

Natto is a traditional Japanese food made from soybeans fermented with Bacillus subtilis var. natto bacteria. It has a characteristic strong smell, distinctive flavor, and a sticky texture due to the fermentation process. Kinema, conversely, is a fermented soybean product from Nepal, particularly popular among the Gurung ethnic group. It’s made by fermenting cooked soybeans with the fungus Rhizopus oligosporus. Kinema has a softer texture compared to natto and has a slightly sweet, sour taste.

While both natto and kinema are fermented soybean products, they originate from different cultures and use different fermentation agents, resulting in distinct flavors, textures, and culinary uses.

Fermented soybeans are indeed present in various cuisines around the world, each with its unique methods of preparation and flavors. Here are a few examples:

Tempeh (Indonesian cuisine): Tempeh is a traditional Indonesian fermented soybean product. It is made by fermenting cooked soybeans with a fungus called Rhizopus oligosporus. Tempeh has a firm texture and a nutty flavor. It’s commonly used in Indonesian cuisine as a protein source and can be fried, grilled, or used in various dishes.

Doenjang (Korean cuisine): Doenjang is a fermented soybean paste used in Korean cuisine. It’s made by fermenting soybeans with salt and a fermentation culture called meju. Doenjang has a savory, umami-rich flavor and is often used as a base for soups, stews, and sauces in Korean cooking.

Miso (Japanese cuisine): Miso is another fermented soybean paste used in Japanese cuisine. It’s made by fermenting soybeans with salt and a koji culture (Aspergillus oryzae). Miso comes in various colors and flavors, ranging from sweet to salty to savory, depending on the ingredients and fermentation time. It’s commonly used to make miso soup, dressings, marinades, and sauces in Japanese cooking.

Chao (Vietnamese cuisine): Chao is a fermented soybean paste used in Vietnamese cuisine. It’s made by fermenting cooked soybeans with salt and a fermentation culture. Chao has a salty, savory flavor and is often used as a condiment or seasoning in Vietnamese dishes.

These are just a few examples of fermented soybean products in different cuisines worldwide. Fermented soybeans are valued not only for their unique flavors but also for their nutritional benefits and versatility in cooking.

Similar to Japan’s natto, kinema is versatile. It can be sun-dried or incorporated into flavorful curries, with variations in preparation reflecting regional nuances. Despite its cultural significance, the tradition of making kinema faces challenges due to fewer individuals inheriting the knowledge.

To preserve this tradition, efforts are needed to document traditional methods, foster knowledge exchange, and raise awareness. Without such efforts, there’s a risk of losing this culinary heritage, impacting Nepali and Kirat cultural diversity.

The story of kinema is not just about a fermented soybean dish. It’s a tale of cultural heritage at risk of fading away. With concerted efforts, we can ensure that the flavors, traditions, and stories of Nepali cuisine remain intact for future generations to appreciate and cherish. 

The author is a UK-based R&D chef