Food, Meet Fungus

Your host Christina in a
tempeh kitchen, for science!

In her episodes of Transistor, biologist Christina Agapakis is exploring the microbiome: the trillions of bacteria, fungi, and viruses that live in and on our body. The microbiome is hot right now and in these episodes Christina will explore what we do know in the face of so much hope and hype.

She starts with food. Bacteria-rich foods such as tempeh, cheese, pickles and yogurt have long been praised for their probiotic effect. But can you really add enough good bacteria to your digestive system to outnumber the bad?

Inside the Episode:

Barry’s business partner Gordon Bennett
mixing the Rhizopus culture into the soybeans.

Christina pays a visit to an industrial kitchen in Long Island City, Queens, where Barry Schwartz and a small team meet up every other week to make Barry’s Tempeh, the only fresh tempeh sold in New York State.

Wanting to better understand tempeh – aka “blue cheese of tofu” – Christina then calls her friend Colin Cahill in Indonesia where tempeh originated. He explains how it’s more than just soybeans and fungus that give tempeh in Indonesia its regional flavor.

Then, if a single bacteria food like tempeh is good, studying a more complex ecosystem like the bacteria on cheese rind might tell us more about bacteria interact with each other and in our digestive systems – at least that’s Harvard biologist Rachel Dutton‘s goal. She’s studied more than a hundred different types of cheese from around the world, trying to better understand how cheese gets its flavor and why they are all so different. She’s now the go-to biologist for world-famous chefs like David Chang of Momufuko and Jim Lahey of Sullivan Street Bakery in New York, helping them explore ways to make foods taste new, different and better.

Christina then shares her early love of fermentation with fermentation revivalist Sandor Katz. Sandor’s never met a fermented food he didn’t like, but he’s skeptical of anyone who says fermented foods can make us healthy on their own.

This episode was produced by Kerry Donahue and Sruthi Pinnamaneni, and mixed by Tim Einenkel.