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Interview - Issue #13

Koji is Community

With photographs by David Reeve

OmVed Gardens’ head chef Josephine Marchandise caught up with fermentation explorer and educator Pao-Yu Liu to discuss culture, community and not being scared of difference.

Josephine Marchandise: You come from Taiwan. When did you move to the UK and when did you feel like you needed to feel connected to your roots, your origins, and Taiwanese food?

Pao-Yu Liu: Since I got here, I’ve always cooked. Of course, I go out to eat as well but I can’t really find a good Taiwanese restaurant and so you start cooking. And then when you have kids, you just want them to connect to your roots because they are half white - half English - so I connect them through food to Taiwan. They love fermented foods and they love my kind of food. I like “feeling good” food and they understood from a very young age that we don’t do kids’ meals. There’s no “kids eat at five, parents eat at seven” - there’s no such thing. We all sit at the table, we eat together - eating for the enjoyment, it’s not just to fill the tummy. So, having kids definitely is one big reason for me to look back to where I’m from because when you’re younger you try to get away. I left [Taiwan] when I was 21.

I definitely see it as not only being about my culture, or my background though. Through fermentation I’ve met loads and loads of nice people throughout the world - so now it’s new roots. I’m from Taiwan and my home is now London. Food has no borders.

‘I hope people can learn and share their experience and then ferment as a part of day-to-day life. And create this kind of community.’

— Pao-Yu Liu

Jo: So, when you think of fermentation, it’s not just fermenting food, it’s that connection you have with the community, with people, with your children and then your country. When did you feel you needed to express this?

Pao: When I started fermenting, like everyone else, I started with sauerkraut and kimchi and then I started to explore making miso and koji. Then one day I realised in Taiwan we use koji too. That made me really excited and I wanted to know more. I found the way of approach, the main method, is very different from the Japanese [method]. And that got me thinking that actually there is no one way - there can be different ways from different places. It’s just so exciting to have all the different cultures connect together through food.

Jo: Essentially, fermenting is a very ancient way of preserving food. And a small village would just have their own ways of preserving foods - whether it’s vegetables or grains or rice - there’s so much more we can explore.

Pao: It’s an excitement and everything can be fermented. And everything can be a side of fermentation - like even talking to you. A bubbling in the heart and that’s great - it’s just so nice.

Jo: You’ve created a lot of things - and you’re part of The Fermenters Guild. You’re also the co-founder of @ladieswhoferment.

Pao: I’m just very lucky. Everyone’s so kind. Koji builds community! Everyone is just sharing. I don’t see myself as an expert. I’m more experimental - playing around with things. I can do something not quite right and you learn from your mistakes.

Jo: Fermentation is also transformative. Like a way of expressing yourself, your creativity and who you are as a person. How do you feel today as a person?

Pao: I’m just so grateful because I started when I got ill - I’m diabetic. And then I had psoriasis all over from my head to toe within two weeks - covered. I sorted it out with my diet. And I went to the sea as well for a few weeks. And then after that, I lost my job. I had nothing and was like, “well, what am I doing now?” I had two young kids. When I started to ferment everything just started to get better and then I became myself again.

Jo: So, you’re diabetic. What did you do when you were diagnosed?

Pao: I read loads. I didn’t really get much help at the beginning because, I don’t know, I just didn’t get much help. So, I was reading a lot. I started looking into food and I started the keto diet - a low-carb and high-fat diet. And I started looking at the fermented foods because I love fermented foods anyway. The first thing I made was this massive green pickle - it’s a classic and my kids love it. I just found the recipe and realised how easy that could be. And I just started making and making it.

Jo: Has it improved your health?

Pao: When I had a low carb diet it did. And now, at the moment, I’m still trying. I do eat quite a lot of carbs - so it goes up and down. It’s difficult. I don’t really drink kombucha or anything sweet.

Jo: How do you nurture your ferments? How do you take care of each other?

Pao: I think you just create an environment for them to try. What do they need? What do they like? That’s the beauty.

Jo: Yes, you feel excited by fermenting. I think it’s also a really nice way of reconnecting with yourself and with people. Like today I tried your ferment and it connects my body to new tastes. But also, to food and to you, your recipes and your country.

Pao: It’s unbelievable how far I’ve come. I’m still so tiny. I’m still at my market and I still love it - just faceto- face direct sales. And introducing new things to my customers - I love that part as well. There’s no sign on my market, I just tell them what I have and then they can try everything and see what they think. And sometimes people say, “oh, I can’t do kimchi” and I reply “that’s fine, you don’t have to”. And sometimes it’s: “I really want to like kimchi”. People are saying that because now kimchi is healthy - but kimchi is just a kind of ferment. When I create a korabi and green mango, people really like it and say: “actually, you know what, I can eat that”. So, I think it’s about connecting to people and I think I somehow win their trust because I treat them as a friend. I want to show them this good thing I found and then share it. They come on a weekly basis or every other week. I’ve made so many friends and they’ve heard all my life stories. It’s nice. It’s not only the fermentation community, you know, just day-to-day people. And some become my customers and some want to come to the workshops - it’s become a part of my life.

Jo: How do you see fermentation in society growing?

Pao: I think this technique is so good for using every part of the food. And so, I hope people can learn and share their experience and then ferment as a part of day-to-day life. And create this kind of community. I’m just really happy for people to make their own things and I’m very happy to share my recipes - even my kimchi recipe is on the BBC Good Food [website]. But it’s a lot of work and if you don’t have time, you can come to me. But if you have time, make your own.

Jo: Essentially, as you say, koji builds community. Fermentation is transformative and is also a bubbly environment. It’s like a city, you have constant changes and conversations. We underestimate how fermentation builds a community of people. When I first started fermenting, I was so surprised how little I knew. Even preserving food - not just fermenting food.

Pao: I just had no idea. I didn’t know.

Jo: And we all connect through food with our ancestors. That’s how we survived through winters.

Pao: Yeah, then it just changed. Stopped. Disconnected.

Jo: When you industrialise you lose that connection.

Pao: It destroys it. It makes everything easier but you forget the older traditions. Everyone can slow down a bit and then go back.

Jo: We are all connected to this longevity of food that’s somewhere in our lives - that’s what’s amazing about preserving and fermenting food. It’s a long-term story and it’s a slow story. It’s so interesting how we got this idea that fermenting food is not safe but it was the safest technique.

Pao: But some people are scared. Because everyone is so used to every single jar from the supermarket tasting exactly the same. But every strawberry can’t taste the same - how can it? And that made me realise that it’s okay for a batch [of ferment] to be a little bit different. And then you educate people that this is fine because the big factories - they need to make everything taste the same. So it’s about not being scared of difference.

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