Wild Plants Used as Starters for Fermented Beverages by Shui People of China


Ethnobotany of wild plants used for starting fermented beverages in Shui communities of southwest China

Hong L, Zhuo J, Lei Q, Zhou J, Ahmed S, Wang C, Long Y, Li F, Long C
J Ethnobiol Ethnomed. 2015 May 28;11:42
PubMed Central PMC4458060

Guizhou Province
Guizhou Province [source: Wikimedia Commons, TUBS]
Investigators at Minzu University of China; Kunming Institute of Botany, Chinese Academy of Sciences; Yunnan Agricultural University; Kaili University; Montana State University; and Guizhou Normal College conducted field studies to examine the ethnobotany of wild plants used as starters for the preparation of fermented beverages in Shui villages in southwest China and to document knowledge and practices associated with liquor fermentation.

From the abstract:

“While the practice of using wild plants as starters for the preparation of fermented beverages was once prevalent throughout China, this tradition has seen a decline nationally since the 1930s. The traditional technique of preparing fermented beverages from wild plant starters remains well preserved in the Shui communities in southwest China and provides insight on local human-environment interactions and conservation of plant biodiversity for cultural purposes.”

The team carried out field surveys with guidance from 149 participants in 20 Shui villages, and documented 103 species in 57 botanical families of wild plants that are traditionally used as starters for preparing fermented beverages. More than 90% of the species have multiple uses in addition to being used as a starter, with medicinal purposes being the most prevalent.

From the background:

“Fermented food and beverages that preserve diverse, locally available resources have been consumed for centuries worldwide as notable dietary components to support household food security and overall wellbeing. Traditionally, such products were associated with cultural identity and social aspects of communities and were most often prepared at the household-scale through the action of microorganisms and their enzymes. Key characteristics of fermented foods and beverages are enhancements to flavor and/or appearance, preserved quality, prolonged shelf-life, reduced cooking time and prebiotic and probiotic properties that have benefits for increasing digestability and bioavailablilty of certain nutrients. Various cultures around the world prepare and consume fermented products to enhance their basic diet including as a side dish, condiment, pickle, confection and beverage. Knowledge on the preparation and attributes of fermented foods and beverages has been transferred from generation to generation and represents traditional ethnobiological knowledge.”

The 149 participants in this survey included 32 men and 117 women between the ages of 23 and 84 years (Shui women are the major harvesters and users of wild plants used as starters for preparing fermented beverages and transfer knowledge orally from mother to daughter). Of 149 participants, 53 key informants were identified who were highly respected in their communities for their rich knowledge of plants used for starters for fermented beverages. These included village elders, traditional brewers of fermented beverages and managers of local liquor distilleries.

The Shui are one of the 55 officially recognized minority nationalities in China. The Shui language belongs to the Kam-Shui language grouping within the Sino-Tibetan language family. From the paper:

“…Shui villages in mountainous valleys and basins are usually located near rivers and even today display the stilted wooden house style. The Shui at the study sites live in clusters of small-scaled villages…. Similar to other indigenous groups in the area, the Shui follow polytheism and animism with worship of ancestors and natural objects including mountains, rocks and ancient trees. Traditional lifestyle is still common in the area and the Shui people are fond of pickles and sour soup in their daily diet. Staple food of the Shuis is rice, together with different local vegetables and meat as protein source. Traditional practices are still common in Shui communities including the production of fermented alcoholic beverages.”

Lygodium japonicum
Lygodium japonicum [source: Wikimedia Commons, James H. Miller, USDA Forest Service]
The plants most frequently mentioned as used as a starter for preparation of fermented alcoholic beverages included Gerbera piloselloides, Lygodium japonicum, Rosa roxburghii, Paederia foetida, Zanthoxylum bungeanum, Plantago depressa and Platycodon grandiflorus.

In their conclusion, the authors recommend a holistic approach to further research and development, leading to policies that enhance the transmission of ethnobotancial knowledge toward conservation of biodiversity and associated preservation of cultural systems:

“[Our] findings highlight the rich biodiversity and habitats that local communities draw upon from their surroundings as part of their cultural life to support interpersonal communication and celebrate key occasions. Women’s role as the primary producers involved in making fermented beverages reflects gendered knowledge that is related to societal life and relations to kin. While knowledge of plants used for liquor making has traditionally been orally transferred from mother to daughter, this knowledge is threatened as the younger generations move away from rural areas in search of jobs and a different lifestyle, a pattern witnessed in rural communities worldwide. Efforts are needed to enhance the transmission of ethnobotancial knowledge in Shui communities towards conservation of biodiversity and associated preservation of cultural systems. Increased interest in natural products and artisanal beverages as well as increased regional tourism is attracting new interest in wild plants used in the processing of fermented foods and beverages. If developed with local community interests and conservation in mind, these commercialization and tourism efforts have the potential of helping preserve traditional ethnobotanical knowledge as well as associated biodiversity. Future studies are needed to evaluate the phytochemical profiles, bioactivity, stability and safety of fermented wild plants and their potential for other fermented foods and beverages as well as medicinal purposes. In addition, it is necessary to develop standards for large-scale production and commercialization of these non-timber forest products. These future studies would help provide guidelines for community-based production and ultimately preservation of biological and cultural diversity.”

Read the complete article at PubMed Central.

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