Gundruk is a traditional vegetable preservation technique from Nepal. Nepal, as we all know, is high in the Himalayas, in an environment where there are long periods where no fresh green vegetables are available. Fermentation of vegetable greens, those parts that we in the west often throw away (or at least hopefully turn into compost), ensures a steady supply of essential vitamins and minerals when no fresh food is available. The fermentation process not only preserves and makes these nutrients more bio-available, but also produces enzymes and amino acids that aid digestion and assimilation of food. The gundruk ferment is initiated by herterofermentative lactic acid bacteria species such as Lactobacillus brevis and Pediococcus pentosaceus and follows the usual successional pattern of Western vegetable ferments (e.g. sauerkraut), culminating in the domination of the microbiota by Lb. plantarum. Gundruk may be enjoyed dried (as ‘leaf jerky’), or cooked in curries, achars, soups or stews. It may also be ground and added to ingredients such as salt, seaweed or sesame seed for use as a condiment.
Of the 69 different cultural and linguistic groups in Nepal, the most well known to Westerners are the ethnic Tibetan Sherpa in the north, and the ethnic Indo-Aryan Ghurkha in the south, and both these peoples are renowned for their strength, endurance and bravery. Now we also know that these peoples historically relied upon Gundruk (and the related radish root ferment Sinki) to get them through the toughest parts of the yearly cycle. When the British army called on Ghurkha warriors to get them out of a tight spot, and when Tenzing Norgay took a stroll up Mount Everest with Edmund Hillary, you can bet that gundruk was there too, tucked away in a corner of each backpack.
In some Nepalese villages, gundruk is fermented under dung, but we won’t be doing that here. It can be buried, or fermented in the open, and we will look at the easy option of fermentation in a closed container sitting on a bench or table at home.
Take the green parts of a variety of vegetables. Anything in the cruciferous vegetable group is traditional (e.g. kale, mizuna, and other radish greens), and we can extend this to include collard greens, broccoli greens, beet greens, spinach, and celery leaves. Any robust and edible green leaf is suitable, but the bulk should be from crucifers. Remove any thick stems, rinse and then wilt the greens in an airy container placed in a warm and airy location. Wilt the leaves for 2 days (or less if the weather is very warm), then chop the leaves roughly with scissors or a knife. Pack the cut leaves as tightly as you can into a glass or ceramic vessel, top it up with pure water heated to about 30° C (86° F) and leave for 5 days to a week. A little salt may be added to the water, but this isn’t necessary.
Some vegetable matter will rise above the water. A food safe weight may be utilised to keep all the greens submerged (food safe means glass, ceramic, hardwood, or a non-porous, boiled stone – steel or plastic will react to the acids produced by fermentation). Alternately, with clean hands, dig in and rotate the greens, pushing them down as much as you can, but being sure that the same greens are not in contact with the air two days running. While doing this, remove any overly yellowed greens if you see them, or any that are browning. The seal on your jar may be loose or airtight, it doesn’t matter. Lactic acid fermentation is an anaerobic process, but be mindful when fermenting in a closed system that CO2 is a by-product of the conversion of plant sugars to lactic acid by the microorganisms of fermentation. CO2 production in a closed vessel can lead to a potentially explosive build up of pressure, so airtight systems may need burping.
After 5 days or so, drain the greens well. The water may be utilised in a soup, if we wish. There is plenty of goodness in it, it would seem a shame to waste it. Place the drained greens in a tray or similar, and spread them out as thinly as possible. Cover the tray with an airy cloth to keep insects away, and dry in the sun. The next step will take as long as it takes. It will be quick if the weather is nice and hot, it will take possibly a few days if the weather is cool. Ensure adequate ventilation at all times, and this stage is only complete when the vegetable matter is bone dry. This is when it has become gundruk, which may be stored in a container for a year or more without mould developing.
As soon as the fermenting vessel is emptied, fill it with more greens for more gundruk. Do this continually throughout the growing season to avoid having to buy imported green vegetables from a different hemisphere in the off season. It is best to eat food from our own region where possible because we are more in tune with it energetically, and reducing the long distance transportation of food is an environmentally sound practice. Fermentation may be seen as a process of controlled food spoilage, where the natural tendency to decay is diverted down the path of preservation and augmentation, and it is one the oldest and simplest strategies for preserving the harvest known to us. Enjoy your leaf jerky, and I encourage you to dive into fermentation, as this is one practice that is definitely part of the solution to many of the challenges facing our planet and our species at this time.
On a final note, I would like to share an idea I call ‘love cooking’. Every time we handle food that will be eaten by our family and friends we are presented with the opportunity to load it up with our energy. When we cook or prepare without thought, or with distraction, or while mulling over the day’s slights, frustrations, and negativity, this is the energy we are unconsciously putting into our food. Preferable for me is to be mindful, to give thanks and respect to the spirit of the life that will sustain us, and to think about the love I have for those who will share the feast with me. Food for thought, as they say.
magic is the intelligence of love