Around December 2012, Odissi danseuse and movement therapist Ashwini Raghupathy lost her voice. It was a trying time—in spite of a healthy lifestyle, the dancer suffered many genetically-determined ailments including severe acidity and chronic asthma and had tried many medicinal methods without success. But when the doctor told her that her acid reflux/GERD had bunt her vocal chords, she realised that things had to change.
“I decided to read up on science journals and research the subject,” she says. She began modifying her diet into a low carb-high fat, and fasting, which helped. “I discovered that fermented foods can be very useful,” she says. Ashwini got a friend to bring her a bottle of organic apple cider vinegar from Singapore and tried it for a few weeks to marvellous effect—two weeks later, her voice was back and Ashwini was hooked to the possibilities of fermented food.
Thus began the journey of Ashwini aka Gutnanji, who helps people resolve their gut issues with information and a wealth of fermented foods.
In recent years, fermented food like kombucha—fermented tea mix—have found fans among A-listers like Madonna and Gwyneth Paltrow, which gives them a somewhat hipster appeal. Ashwini hopes to turn away the attention from the razzmatazz.
“It is not a trend, but an ancient tradition backed by science,” she says, referring to the journals and magazines that have carried information on the benefits of fermented foods for a variety of ailments, from inflammation to mental health issues.
Ashwini’s personal journey in becoming a fermented foods crusader was long-drawn and hardly simple. Her initial experiments made her a fan, but finding sources for such items in India turned out to be a challenging, nay almost impossible task. There were few available sources in India and many of those had even stopped operating.
“When I exhausted the Indian contacts, I began researching abroad,” she says “There were many influential mentors working in the field. I found two mentors from Canada and Russia who taught me how to make kochumba and kefir and I continue to work with them.” Armed with information and SCOBYs (more on this later in the article), she got to work.
In spite of the lack of confidence among peers and family members, Ashwini persisted with fermenting foods and eating them too. As the good effects began to show on her mind and body, the delicious recipes began to find other takers too. Realising both the need and potential of her activities, Ashwini began to plan an enterprise that offers fermented foods and also educated people on their potential.
Thus Gutnanji founded Good Life, offering subscriptions for her products and spreading awareness through workshop and consultancy services.
Fermentation is an ancient process, its practise reportedly going back to the Neolithic Age. Ashwini attributes its lack of popularity to the rise of what she cheekily terms an anti-bacterial madness over recent centuries. It wasn’t until fresh research around the 1960s that showed bacteria has many benefits too, gradually making way for probiotic foods and beverages across the world.
Wild fermentation is one method of making such food, and its examples includes homemade pickles or other items fermented naturally. Then there is the method of breeding your choice of fermentation edible in a SCOBY. An acronym for Symbiotic Culture Of Bacteria and Yeast, the SCOBY is used to prepare items like kombucha, kefir (a dairy or water-based bevera+ge) and even vinegar.
“There is a different SCOBY for different foods, and there are fascinating stories about how some of their formation,” Ashwini says, narrating the legend of how the original kefir grains were gifted by Prophet Mohammad to a group of people in the North Caucasian mountains.
At Good Life, Ashwini sells cultures for kombucha, milk kefir and water kefir and also demonstrates fermentation processes during her workshops, which she had been organising since 2015.
Emphasising on spreading awareness, Ashwini encourages many to not only consume fermented foods and beverages but make it for themselves too.
She offers post-workshop assistance to participants to help them set up their own units and also takes up consulting services for individuals and institutions like offices and restaurants, many of which are now including fermented items in their menus and recipes. “I am doing a series of talks and master classes on Gut Health across schools, colleges and corporates,” she adds.
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Ashwini is now focusing on growing and stabilising Good Life’s subscription services, currently available in Bengaluru. With her mind on expansion, she is now planning to host workshops around India starting with Chennai, Hyderabad and Delhi. She also aims to make her blog a reliable source of information on fermented food and gut health.
Fermented food is recommended as a respite for numerous health issues, from Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and allergies to asthma and inflammatory diseases like arthiritis. For Ashwini, it has been a means of bringing a sense of calm and balance in her life. Life is good for this Odissi dancer and she hopes to spread the goodness among others too.