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Kombucha: Why Are People Talking about This Tasty Tonic?

In the Fire

According to an article in the New York Times, kombucha's origins can be found in ancient China, though many countries have a history of fermented tea. It's made from adding some of the kombucha starter culture to a mixture of tea and sugar and letting it ferment for seven to fourteen days. A mushroom-like bacteria and yeast growth develops in the form of a pink gelatinous pancake (referred to as "the mother") that uses the tea and sugar for food. A chemical reaction produces the resulting drinkable substance known as kombucha. Smaller organisms called "babies" break off from the mother and are often given or sold to others looking to start growing kombucha.

While there are several companies manufacturing kombucha on a large scale (Coca Cola owns a big share of one), it's mainly made by enthusiastic brewers who think it should be prepared at home for optimal quality and taste. Though there have been no formal studies to prove it, many fans of the drink ardently claim that drinking kombucha daily is excellent for liver function, immune-boosting, hair growth, and intestinal health, among other things.

Low in caffeine and sugar (once the fermentation is complete) and high in vitamins and minerals, kombucha also contains friendly bacteria (like those found in yogurt) that are reputed to be good for digestive health.

Some people think the predominance of acid in kombucha may make it unsafe to drink. In 1995, two women who repeatedly drank from the same mother became very ill (and one subsequently died). Though there was no direct correlation ever made between kombucha and illness, it took a hiatus from the American market till its recent comeback.

Why Chefs Might Like Kombucha

Aside from its possible health benefits and unique taste, kombucha is appealing to those who like to "do it themselves" when it comes to food and drink. Like micro beer, honey-based meade, or artisan cheese, there is an art to making kombucha that attracts those interested in cooking things most people just buy. Because it's raw (unpasteurized), it must be made using sterile equipment and correct times and temperatures.

Like sourdough, kombucha mothers have their own individual characters. Recipes also vary according to the tea used (black, white, and green) and additional flavoring ingredients. Super green algae, citrus, cayenne, mango, ginger, ginseng, lavender, elderberry, and pomegranate are just some of the flavors you're likely to see.

As a chef, you may find yourself inspired by the taste, history, and creative and monetary potential of making and serving this strange and delicious beverage. For recipes and video instructions, check out Meghan Telpner's blog Making Love in the Kitchen.

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