On a counter in my kitchen rests a glass bowl covered in cheesecloth containing a strange floating organism which has almost as many names as the Hindu god Shiva — and he has a thousand. But whereas Shiva’s names are all in Sanskrit, most languages across the globe have a name for my strange friend. Yet guests around our kitchen table usually ask what on earth it is.
The English name Kombucha is derived from the 5th-century Korean physician Kom-bu. It’s a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeasts or scoby, which produces an extremely healthy soft drink when fed sweet tea. Kombucha is a folk remedy, like the Peruvian bark discovered by a Jesuit missionary, which became known as quinine, or Hippocrates’s willow bark, latterly known as aspirin. The Kombucha drink is reported to have helped cure a vast number of conditions, including gout, migraines, cataracts, irritable bowel syndrome, insomnia and impotence.
It tastes like an effervescent elderflower cordial, with a hint of vinegar and a dry after-taste. I brew it roughly once a week in large batches, drain and store the brew in Le Parfait jars, and feed my scoby with more sweet tea for the next batch. The organism grows unstoppably — even sprouting in the strained brewed tea — so there are always offspring to give away and old ones to add to garden compost. In my family we credit a daily glass of Kombucha brew with curing athlete’s foot, sinusitis and chronic rhinitis, mild depression and sensitivity to cold. I’ve noticed a huge increase in energy and strengthened eyesight, and most delightfully, it has made me thinner.
Keeping Kombucha is not for the faint-hearted. One friend said it looked like a white placenta, another was so horrified she flushed it down the loo — so when guests ask to take a culture home I generally try to put them off. Like all living yeasts and cultures, it needs to be handled carefully and hygienically; otherwise it can make you ill. It seems perfectly normal to me to live side by side with bacteria and fungi that are quietly decomposing and transforming what they feed on, but I realise I’m not necessarily displaying mainstream English behaviour. On the other hand, the Tupperware boxes used to ferry scobies between friends cannot be found for love nor money in London, so perhaps keeping cultures is more English than I thought.
A plethora of everyday foods have gone through a fermenting process: bread, Branston pickle, coffee, chocolate, cheese, salami, sauerkraut, tea, vinegar and yogurt, for instance. (Tobacco leaves are even fermented before being rolled into Cuban cigars.) In each case the process adds valuable nutrients and raises taste to new levels. But it’s the affect on health that’s really startling. A study in Tanzania (Svanberg, 1992) shows that children fed with fermented gruels had a 33 per cent lower incidence of diarrhoea, which kills 3 million infants in the Third World every year through dehydration.
The trouble with folk remedies is that there’s no authority guaranteeing their efficacy. From Tahitian Noni juice to Scandinavian birch bark tonic to stevia sugar from Paraguay (reputed to be 300 times sweeter than sugar without the calories) or the Hoodia chewed by Kalahari bushmen to obliterate hunger and thirst on hunting trips — you never quite know if they’ll work.
But is Kombucha safe? It’s not something that can be patented by a pharmaceutical company, so nobody has spent the requisite £400 million over 15 years conducting clinical trials. All we have is anecdotal evidence of whole continents using it gratis for centuries, and a few horror stories. Scientific papers on the subject of Kombucha do exist, but Russian scientists wrote most of them before 1955 and they have never been translated. Stalin sent his physicians to the Lubyanka (KGB headquarters and prison) for prescribing Kombucha because he thought folk remedies discredited the scientific status of Soviet medicine — so sadly we also lack evidence of its effects on rampant paranoia.
You can buy pasteurised Kombucha from health food shops and even Sainsbury’s, but the pasteurisation kills many friendly bacteria. Starter kits for the real stuff are available from thousands of internet sites.