There’s rain pelting down on the kitchen windows at home in Bangalore. Its 10:03 pm as I measure out the ingredients for my weaver ant garum.
250g of frozen weaver ants
250g of koji rice
1L of water
10% pink salt
With my fermentation fairy Payal Shah of Kobo Fermentary on a Zoom call to watch over me, I very cautiously combine the ants, koji, water and salt in a glass bowl and give it a stir with a wooden chopstick. Did I remember to wash my hands properly? I heard myself whisper a small prayer to everyone in that bowl, wishing them well on their journey. I didn’t know what the destination was, so I couldn’t be more specific.
I bought a rice cooker for the experiment—I’ve never used one before. I knew I had to use the “Keep Warm” setting, but I wasn’t sure if it would switch off after a point. What happens if it does? I had also never fermented anything using koji, let alone ants. I set myself up for a long night ahead: I most ambitiously planned to wake up every two hours to check that the internal temperature doesn’t rise beyond 55C and confirm that the cooker was still on.
12 am – temp at 48.7C. Great.
I overslept the multiple alarms I had set, and woke up with a horrible start at I don’t even know what time, tried to measure the temperature of the ferment but burnt my finger instead. Also pretty sure I saw a few bubbles with my half opened eyes—doesn’t water boil at 100C? Oh shit.
Has it failed? Can I just quickly fix it? How do I escape from this failure?
I put the entire bowl into the freezer, and borrowed a real food thermometer from a friend. I mixed some more koji into the concoction, and put the rice cooker on the “keep warm” setting. I knew now that I had to check it every hour and note the temperature. About two hours in, it reached 53C. I switched it off and let it cool down.
Switched on at 7 am – 26C
Switched off at 9:30 am – 54C
Switched on at 7pm – 28C
Switched off at 9:00 pm – 53C
Switched on at 11 am – 27C
Measuring at 1:30pm…
Damn it. Damnitdamnitdamnit the enzymes are dead.
Trial 1 of the experiment has failed
I switch off the rice cooker and just watch the ants and koji swimming in a bowl of water, a gentle sourness engulfing the air around me, all too hot to touch. I knew I had to call it for what it was. It had failed. But why was this so difficult to do? No one else was watching. No one else would have to know that It had failed. But I was upset. Somehow, the experiment failing felt like I had failed—that there was no difference between the two. I wanted everything to be perfect on my very first try, and goddamit why couldn’t it have been so?
I messaged Payal:
We spent about 40 minutes troubleshooting, wondering what went wrong, what I could keep in mind for the next time, and what I knew now that I had tried it at least once.
“Don’t forget to enjoy the process too”, she said.
I read that over, and over. And over.
Had I enjoyed the process? For the most part, I was worried this was a disaster in the making. That I had already made a mistake, and this was me simply layering mistakes one on top of another and calling it a birthday cake. Who ever enjoyed anything while being afraid?
The first thing I did was to get myself a food grade thermometer with a max and min gauge, and an alarm that goes off if the temperature rises. This protects me from killing off the enzymes – the most important thing to avoid doing at any cost, really.
Next, I tried to find a way to become friends with Koji in a less intimidating process, and to explore what “enjoying the process” meant to me. It wasn’t bound to the outcome.. This was to be and do. I took 250 ml of beef stock and mixed it in a jar with 200g of fresh rice koji and 10% salt. I stirred it around and whispered another little prayer, a wish for a delight, and closed the jar.
Every morning, as soon as I wake up I open the jar, smell it and give it a stir. Everyday it gives me something different, something new. I have been stirring and smelling the shio koji for the last 6 days, watching it transform into the epitome of funk and flavour. If flavour is a component that builds itself into something magnificent over time, isn’t failure the same? If I could taste a beef stew or shio koji and tell that with just a little more time it’ll be exactly where it needs to be, why didn’t the same rule apply to me? Failure was a heavy and dark word weighing down on my heart, when it could be something as light and powerful as a delightful molecule of flavour on my tongue.
Still out here stirring the shio koji, tasting as I go. It doesn’t matter what it will become, I like where it is right now.
I think I’m ready to fail again.