"Once you make something you truly enjoy that is fermented, you develop a deeper bond with that food and that experience is so wonderful you will want to share it." Interview with Jess Wang of Picklé
1. Can you tell us a bit about how you got started in food? Your path in food...
My path in food started before I was born. My mom, Peggy, was living in Texas when she was pregnant with me and she is an adventurous eater so the Tex-Mex she had serious cravings for at the time introduced me to rich flavors at an early age. Growing up I spent a lot of time in the kitchen with my mom, who happens to be a fun host of dinner parties and fan of hardcore made from scratch recipes, so I have always been comfortable and curious about the process of preparing food, and aware of how much joy sharing it brings. Professionally, I got into food in my early 20s, after art school. I was jealous of the kitchen staff at cafes for years working as a barista, and I was ready for change because I felt unfulfilled in my other work options in the arts. My back of house coworkers always seemed to have more fun and shared a special sense of community, so I did a little research for a way in without having to go through culinary school. I did not want to go into debt. My boss, Sumi Chang suggested I look for an apprenticeship, so I did and that eventually led to a job at Forage in Silver Lake. I loved home cooking but was intimidated by the pressures of working as a savory cook so I gravitated toward the pastry kitchen. I am grateful they took a chance on me, and I turned out to be a good fit for their first pastry assistant position.
2. What made you especially drawn to fermentation?
It started with eating! Since I was a child I have enjoyed eating fermented foods, pickles of all kinds and Chinese fermented foods like tofuru (a creamy fermented tofu, very cheese-like), and I remember the first time my mom learned how to make kimchi - we had this huge glass jar in the kitchen - and it evoked such wonder. As an adult I am still just as fascinated by the process of fermentation! Since learning about the remarkable health benefits and experiencing a serious diet related health encounter in my late 20s, I became obsessed and can't imagine life without my dear community of healthy bacteria and fungi.
3. Is there a specific type of cuisine/culture of pickling that you draw from?
I draw from techniques and concepts rooted in a combination of cultures. As I have settled into my 30s I am finding myself especially interested in eating a diet rich in ancestral foods, incorporating ingredients locally available, so I often prepare Chinese pickles to include in my home cooking. I grew up in the San Gabriel Valley and Chiang Mai, Thailand, where Korean food was plentiful and my entire family loves eating it, so I have a special relationship with kimchi and am actively expanding my understanding and practice of kimchi making and culture. Aside from the cuisine/culture aspect I focus on anaerobic vegetable fermentation, but am learning more about bean, grain, and fruit ferments.
4.When did you start to understand fermentation as a kind of medicinal practice?
I'm not sure I would think of it as a medicinal practice, but I do think of fermentation as a transformative healing practice. Before I had an epiphany in my understanding of this aspect of fermentation, I was always conscious of how I felt more alive after eating a fermented pickle. The turning point came the year after I was diagnosed with pre-diabetes at age 29. When I made a career change, it was about making a lifestyle change and incorporating a balanced diet to maintain healthy blood sugar.
5. What are its health benefits?
The most notable physical benefits are bioavailability of nutrients and probiotics aiding in digestion, and more information is becoming available on the gut-brain connection. There are emotional and psychological benefits! Simply knowing your body can absorb more nutrients from a fermented food compared to that same food in a raw or cooked state, should make it clear you should include more fermented foods in your diet.
6. Given the current situation – in trying to make our foods last to lessen trips to the store – fermentation feels especially significant and meaningful. Has this affected your view of it in any way? Do you see people getting more involved with these methods in food moving forward?
Absolutely! I am so pleased to see how our current situation has helped us to gain perspective on food preservation and to become aware of the value in it out of necessity. When a friend told me she realized kimchi was hard to find at stores, it made me happy to know that meant many people would have no choice but to learn how to make it if they wanted to eat it. Once you make something you truly enjoy that is fermented, you develop a deeper bond with that food and that experience is so wonderful you will want to share it, so I do see people's futures getting more and more fermented.
7. You lead workshops which are community driven, can you tell us more about that?
My motivation to spread knowledge of the health benefits I have experienced comes from a personal place because I have experienced healing through fermentation practices. I got started in leading pickling workshops through my long time collaborators at Asian Pacific Islander Forward Movement, a nonprofit I volunteered at 5 years ago. The non profit focuses on maintaining healthy communities through different initiatives including food education and accessibility to healthy food, and they operate a sustainable and organic produce service connecting businesses with small family farms. On another level within my personal community, I have been able to slowly expand my business and create jobs for some of my family members and friends, and look forward to more opportunities to do that.
8. I know that you have a background in art, what are some of the meeting points between what you do in art and food? Do the practices inform one another?
My art practice has always been therapy-centric, with processing experiences and connecting with memories, and embracing change, so the way I engage with food as a healing medium and see my role as a host of guided food experiences has many natural connections to my relationship with art. The concept of my fermentation workshop project, Picklé, which is focused on sustainability and preservation of cultures from the micro to the macro, has grown into a wonderful bridge to my art practice. It has grown into a space for me to invite collaborators and an audience with the intention of encouraging the growth of culture through shared experiences.
9. Right now a lot of people are returning to making things by hand – in food and other crafts – is there something outside of fermentation you have been doing at home these days which grounds you?
Handwriting notes and sending mail has been a meaningful way to connect with friends. I am happy to provide a break from a screen.
10. What are some of your favorite things to cook right now?
Cute foods! Quail eggs are one of them! Small sourdough pancakes with crispy edges are also always in favor. They're a great way to incorporate vegetable scraps from pickling projects too.
11. Pickle of the moment?
In response to the stay at home order, Jess Wang is now offering pickling workshops as webinars. Learn more and sign up at Picklé.