Kombucha in a Class of Its Own

To those who can’t ride the wave of kombucha sweeping the nation: I get it. The harsh, vinegary bite of most commercial brews can be matched in hostility only by the aggressive carbonation quick to follow. Frothing angrily in the mouth, searing all the way down the throat, such overbearing acidity obliterates all other sensations. Flavor? Who could discern a flavor from something as pungent as straight battery acid? Those sensitive to the taste know this isn’t such an exaggeration, especially when pairing equally assertive notes of ginger or lemon; an incredibly popular approach.

Marin Kombucha is the brew for you. Before breaking the seal and taking your first sip, forget everything you previously knew about fermented tea, because this is just that: tea first, tonic second. Far more balanced, sweet without being sugary, and altogether more refreshing than any other option in the category, Marin Kombucha stands apart from the pack. Founders Gerit Williams and Brian Igersheim meld their unique passions in food and chemistry to create such an unparalleled beverage right in the heart of the north bay, between Napa Valley and San Francisco.

I was lucky enough to meet Gerit at an event by Sound & Savor, who stocks only Marin Kombucha as the non-alcoholic alternative to beer or wine. Passionate about tea, his lifelong obsession progressed in knowledge, understanding, and exposure throughout the years to culminate in the brand, first launching in 2015. Ask him anything about the process and prepare yourself for a complete education. Reverse osmosis-filtered water meets a mix of dragonwell green and kimon black tea in exacting proportions, but don’t forget about the nuances drawn out by brewing time and temperature, too.

“After 90 seconds, all the bitter tannins begin to leach out,” he explains. “Longer brews don’t yield stronger flavor, just more bitter flavor. Besides that, it destroys antioxidants.”

Both art and science intermingle in every glass bottle, bringing centuries of tradition into the modern age with precise control over every step in the process. Every small batch ends at exactly a PH of 3.5 and an alcohol content of less than 0.01%. The really fascinating thing, however, is that this is truly a live food; given warmth and time, the yeast will reactivate and continue to ferment. It’s one of (if not the) only kombucha currently on the market that could actually grow its own scoby given the right conditions. If you’ve considered adding probiotics to your daily diet, skip the supplements and drink your “medicine” instead!

Marin Kombucha’s signature flavors of oak-aged fermented tea reflect the local harvest: Original Oak, Apple Juniper, Pinot Sage, and Ginger Lemongrass. While these four distinctive varieties are currently bottled for purchase in every Whole Foods in northern California and in many specialty and natural foods stores, rapidly spreading across the country, limited run batches tempt in full kegs. Unconventional combinations like Strawberry Pistachio, Raspberry Cacao, Blood Orange Cardamom, Cactus Agave, and Mojito tease, popping up randomly on tap every now and then. My current favorite, Melon Rose, is happily transitioning to single-serve packaging soon, harmonizing notes of honeydew, watermelon, and a hint of rose on a naturally effervescent foundation.

Currently producing in excess of 15,000 gallons per week, the only barrier to further growth is sheer physical space. Demand is bubbling over because once anyone tries their first sip, they’ll realize what kombucha really should be. It’s hard to go back to anything else.

 

 

 

Advertisements

Raise a Stink

With a name like “stinky tofu,” the deck is already stacked against this polarizing snack. Granted, the title is entirely well-earned, accurate if somewhat blunt, and not merely a result of cultural misunderstanding. The aroma will hit you a block away, wafting through night markets like a pungent homing beacon for those in the know. Tenaciously clinging to hair and clothing, the distinctive perfume follows you home, infused simply through proximity, whether or not you chose to partake. To the uninitiated or unadventurous, the scent is not exactly one you’d want to bottle and put in a diffuser. Rotting garbage, overflowing toilets, and decaying fish are sometimes cited as less favorable comparisons, yet fervent fans will travel an hour or more to reach their favorite hawker, slinging only the most odoriferous options imaginable.

Verified vegan stinky tofu  from 家湘涼麵 in Shilin Night Market

Do you like kombucha? Okay, then what about blue cheese? If you can stomach that, how do you feel about durian? Funky, fermented cubes of tofu is an acquired taste that may not be for everyone, particularly for western palates unaccustomed to such ripe stank. Though most flavor is discerned through our olfactory experience rather than our taste buds, the best renditions taste relatively mild in contrast to the assertive, pervasive stench.

Before sniffing out this controversial staple, be forewarned that most stinky tofu (written as 臭豆腐 or chòu dòufu) is not vegan. Traditionally fermented in a brine made with spoiled milk, fish innards, and/or dried shrimp, this “secret sauce” tends to be a closely guarded family secret, never to be disclosed under threat of death (or disownment.) In Asia, if you don’t speak the language fluently, your best bet is to start at dedicated veggie or Buddhist establishments. In the US, where dietary restrictions are the norm rather than the exception, you should be able to discern if there are any dairy or seafood additions, if not a full list of ingredients.

Texture is almost as critical as the infamously musty, gamey taste. Preparations run the gamut from practically raw to fried within an inch of their lives, but my favorite sort is deep fried, resoundingly crunchy on the outside, firm and meaty yet almost silky on the inside. The softer the tofu, the funkier the flavor, so it takes a bold eater to spring for those barely steamed squares instead.

Eating stinky tofu in Taipei, as is typically served in a plastic bag with wooden sticks

Condiments play an essential role in taming this tofu, each seasoned with an equally heavy hand to provide sufficient contrast. Fiery hot sauce and kimchi, sharp black vinegar, sweet and salty pickled vegetables, and crunchy garlic are all common and all highly recommended. Intense, bold flavors envelop your entire consciousness, punching harder with every subsequent bite, demanding your full attention from start to finish. It’s no passive grab-and-go snack, but a noteworthy event, even if it becomes a daily indulgence. .

In China and Taiwan, stinky tofu is classic comfort food, cheap and satisfying, great with (or after) a few drinks, and readily available all day, any day.

Stinky tofu from Dragon Gate Bar & Grille in Oakland, CA

Close your eyes, take a big bite, and breathe it all in. You may love it, you may hate it, but everyone should try stinky tofu at least once.