So this round of WTFood is a bit of a two-for-one deal; First we’ve got Kombucha, a tea-based drink originating in Asia, and second is Chia, specifically the seeds, an ancient Aztec crop related to mint.
Kombucha, also known in some parts of the world as the “Elixir of Life”, is tea cultured with a mushroom fungus. It is believed to have originated in China roughly 2200 years ago, but gained real popularity in Russia, where the peasants cultivated it for its health benefits. From there it spread to Japan, where it was known as a popular potable among samurai, and Europe, mostly among Germans. Kombucha fell out of favor as World War 2 began due to tea and sugar shortages.
The first thing anyone ever tells you about Kombucha is that it’s alive. The bacteria and yeast that ferment the tea are always active, which is why you always see chunks of culture floating at the bottom (the larger of which I can’t bring myself to drink). But they’re also what give Kombucha it’s mystical heritage, as the enzymes and acids are known for detoxification, probiotic, and anti-cancer properties. As Kombucha is actively fermenting, it does contain some small level of alcohol. Normally this is limited to under 0.5%, making it available as a regular food product, but if left to age, the content can rise. Also, don’t shake it, as the process naturally produces gasses that pressurize the container (though the tea itself is only mildly bubbly).
I think the first time I came across Kombucha was in a Whole Foods about 7 years ago. Given that I was about 20, I didn’t give it much thought (mostly because it was pretty expensive for a drink, about $6 a bottle, though it’s still about $4 now). Then I caught an episode of Bizarre Foods where Andrew Zimmern meets a man who makes this potent potable (around the 2:50 mark):
As you can see in the clip, Kombucha, like many teas, is often flavored. I like the flavor options of GT’s products and they have a “Synergy” line that contains actual fruit juice, which is nice since there’s actually a method to drinking Kombucha. Ideally, you drink a bottle (16 oz) spread out over the day, a little before every meal. Since that means drinking it before breakfast, having a little juice mixed in is a plus. However, if you decide to try some of this brew, don’t jump straight into that pace. Instead, start slow, maybe a quarter or half a bottle, and figure out how your system deals with the influx of bacteria, acids, and enzymes. If you take it well, increase gently, until you find a level you’re comfortable with (for me that’s a bottle a day, usually in one sitting, but only two days a week). To be honest, you don’t need to drink more than a glass a day to get the health benefits.
Since Kombucha is unpasteurized, there are some risks involved with consumption, but as far as I’m concerned, they’re negligible.
Probably the weirdest thing I learned while researching for this post is that there’s a way to make clothing out of the Kombucha SCOBY (the mat of culture at the top of the bottle in that previous video).
Now on to our second WTFood: Chia Seeds.
First, when you say chia in the U.S.A., every automatically thinks of Chia Pets. Well, guess what, these are the same seeds.
Chia (salvia hispanica) is typically grown from Central Mexico to Guatemala (though Australia is the world’s largest commercial producer), and was cultivated by both the Aztecs and Mayans (possibly as much as maize) as a compact source of energy. Pretty much everything you find on chia seeds relates how it was important for hunters, giving them a boost as they ran for dozens of miles through the jungle. For example, here’s part of an article:
For centuries, this tiny little seed was used as a staple food by the Indians of the southwest and Mexico. Known as the running food, its use as a high-energy endurance food has been recorded as far back as the ancient Aztecs. It was said the Aztec warriors subsisted on the chia seed during the conquests. The Indians of the southwest would eat as little as a teaspoon full when going on a 24hr. forced march. Indians running from the Colorado River to the California coast to trade turquoise for seashells would only bring the Chia seed for their nourishment.
And here’s part of the reason: 20 grams (roughly 2 tablespoons) of chia seeds is roughly 66 calories. 20 grams of sugar is 75 calories. But while all you’re getting from eating pure sugar is a toothache, chia seeds also contain all the essential amino acids, a decent level of protein, fiber (more than in oatmeal), and Omega fatty acids (8x the amount of Omega-3 in salmon), and some antioxidants (more than in blueberries), calcium, and phosphorus. There’s some evidence that adding 20g of chai (daily recommended amount) helps lower blood pressure and LDL cholesterol, as well as benefits diabetics The recent health-nut surge in promoting ancient Mayan/Aztec “Superfoods” (like Goji berries, Acai, Maca, and Golden Berries) also pushes adding chia seeds to one’s diet.
High levels of soluble fiber is one of the reasons chia is so popular – it’s extremely hydrophilic, able to absorb 9-12 times its weight in water. This effect produces a gelatinous substance much like tapioca. This has two effects on the digestive system: first, it promotes hydration, and second, it slows down the absorption of carbohydrates (a real benefit to diabetics). For this reason, one of the most popular means of consuming chia seeds is simply in a glass of water/juice/tea. Honestly, it reminds me of Basil Seed drinks (a favorite of mine around Halloween because it looks like you’re drinking tadpoles). However, it can also be ground into a powder, made into a pudding, baked into various goods, or sprinkled on yogurt. Unlike poppy or flax, chia seeds have no real flavor by themselves.
And now we come to why I’ve done Kombucha and chia in the same post: that bottle in the image above (the one on the right), is Kombucha with grape juice and chia seeds (though there are a few other flavors). It’s so new that it’s still not on the producer’s website. The chia seeds cut down on the acidity of the Kombucha, but also give it a consistency just this side of pudding. It’s delicious – I just suspect that the mouthfeel is a bit too strange for a lot of people. However, if you’d prefer to try a chia drink without Kombucha, there are a number available.