Sunday, August 11, 2013

Beware Of The Blob

I'm very picky when it comes to what I'm willing to eat. Most people I know have no problem eating cheese or oysters, but I'm put off by the strange methods that go into their production, or in the case of shellfish, their lifestyles. They're bottom-feeders you guys. They eat the dendrites of the ocean floor, that can't be good for you.

But reading about nasty food is a whole other thing entirely. I love delving into the horrifying mysteries of foreign cuisine; cataloging a growing menagerie of terrible, nigh-inedible monstrosities from around the world. To me, these delicacies aren't meant to be eaten. They're meant to be studied, kept in a glass jar and put on a shelf. Then you can safely watch them as they squirm inside their prisons, trying to escape.

But of all the food I've researched (and subsequently refused to eat), none seem as unappetizing, or as potentially dangerous as Kefir.

To understand Kefir, one must first understand it's more docile relative: Yogurt. Yogurt of course is fermented milk, using colonies of bacteria to convert lactose into lactic acid and other helpful byproducts. Now this is a fairly normal process in itself; fermentation is just a fact of life. After all, it's how you make cheese and beer. But like so many of life's little blessings, you can take this too far and start creating monsters.

See, yogurt is typically fermented with a single microbial species, almost always some variety of Lactobacillus. This isn't the case with Kefir, which is fermented with a venerable microcosm of bacteria and yeast, drawing from a multitude of diverse species across a variety of phyla. There's so many microbes living in any given Kefir colony that it's almost impossible to keep track of them all. Really, the only criteria for what goes into making the stuff is that it be a probiotic or a variety of yeast. That's it.

The result of all this is the Kefir grain: a gelatinous slurry of bacteria and yeast suspended in a matrix of proteins, lipids and sugar. It's essentially a community of living, growing microbes held together with stretchy goo, expanding to truly enormous proportions and becoming something not unlike a Portuguese Man O'War or The Blob.

Once a sizable colony has been cultivated, the grain is dropped in milk in a loosely-covered glass jar or other suitable container. With some periodic agitation, the milk is allowed to ferment over the next twenty-four hours, the grain acting like some sort of gene-seed. The container has to be loosely covered to allow built up Kefiran gases to be released. It should also be kept in a dark cupboard, as sunlight can break down the vitamins and kill bacteria.

After about a day, the liquid is run through a sieve and the grains are recovered, what you're left with is a thick, milky liquid absolutely filled with microflora. At this point you can drink it, pour it on cereal or let it continue to ferment, at which point it will only become thicker and more sour as more and more bacteria continue to grow in the liquid's saucy depths. But regardless of when you decide to drink it, expect Kefir to have a sour, tangy taste.

Kefir is most common in East Europe, including Russia, but it can be found all over the world from the Middle East to Chile. Perhaps this has to do with how easy it is to make; just take a grain and plop it in the milk of whatever animal is close by. You could make Kefir from cows, goats, yaks, even camels. And since there's no set limit on how long it can ferment for, there's a lot of room for experimentation.

That's all fine and good, but what happens to the grains afterwards? My sources tell me they're used to grow more colonies and ferment more of the drink. Good, but where did it come from in the first place? Somewhat suspiciously, Wikipedia points out that you cannot make your own grains from scratch, that you need to get them from someone who already has some stewing in their cupboard. Why is this? Is it unsafe to make your own? Who made the first Kefir grains and how long ago was it?

Apparently, no one actually knows where Kefir grains first came from. We as a species have been cultivating them for so long that their origin has been lost in time. For all we know these things could have arrived in a meteor. Although some claim they were extracted from the intestinal tracts of sheep. But I'm not convinced.

Especially not after reading about what they do when they're not immersed in milk. Since the grains are colonies of living bacteria, they themselves are arguably alive, showing traits more common to slime molds than any mere dairy, going so far as to move on their own accord and even split like giant amoebae. It can't be any coincidence that they look like tiny albino Hortas.

I'm not trying to alarm anyone out there. After all, there's plenty of evidence pointing to Kefir's health benefits. It's just...

...I don't know, I guess there's no such thing as being too careful.


mom said...

a few years back I was checking out kefir. picked it up read the back of the bottle. put it down. I did this process over a couple week span but could never bring myself to try it.
you have not painted a appetizing picture for me. im kinda grossed out.

Shadgrimgrvy said...

That's what I'm here for: Making the world seem a little more frightening and unpleasant each day.

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