Strong Roots

We interviewed Katja Philips from GREEN BASKETS Healthy Lifestyle Boutique based in Bedfordview, Gauteng, South Africa. 

As a second generation immigrant from St Petersburg, Russia, Katja lends us an authentic, grass-roots understanding of fermented foods passed on from her great grandmother, highlighting their ‘age-old’ importance in forming a strong foundation for our microbiome and gut health.

Can you tell us more about your background?

I was born in St Petersburg, Russia, in 1983. My family stayed in St Petersburg most of their life, but my grandparents on my father’s side were from Siberia and they lived all their life enjoying the idea of total greenery and wildlife, and followed a true eco-orientated way of life. Two years ago, we visited Siberia and I suddenly understood exactly what kind of blood is running through my veins. 

On the other side of my family, as much as they were also born in St. Petersburg, they really enjoyed spending time in the Ukraine. The Ukraine is well known for its extremely rich black mineral soils, known as ‘chernozem‘. When it rains the soil actually turns black and smells amazing! It is so rich in minerals. We had small sets of farms. There was wine production, honey production. Here, we are not talking about factories but great big fields -great green openings with bees just flying around bringing you honey in the wild, from the wild. We also did cold-pressing of sunflower oil, all from our own sunflowers we would grow. That is my basic background.  

I came to South Africa when I was only 15 years old, so I have been here for about 23 years by now. Pretty much most of my life I have lived in South Africa. Sadly, most of my allergies and health challenges began to appear in South Africa, especially to do with my stomach, accompanied by skin problems. I started to become aware of my allergies towards pork products -and later found out exactly why. 

In St Petersburg I was brought up on our own beef, chicken and pork of course, where I never had a problem, but in South Africa I started developing quite nasty side effects from these foods. I guess that those became signs for me to dig deeper, I was quite young at the time, and it was about 10 years after having arrived in South Africa that I started feeling not as well. 

What green business do you have, when did you start it, and why did you begin this business?

My journey started almost 7 years ago, in 2014. I had my little daughter in my arms. She was just over a year old. She was definitely the little person giving me the possibility and the belief that I could do more in this world. First of all, the name that came immediately to me was ‘Green Baskets’. I knew it would be something related to health, but not quite sure exactly what. Whether it was a juicing company or prepared meals or a health shop. And it landed up being a health shop -with the juicing aspect and with the prepared healthy meals service all incorporated.  

I started this business due to my late stepfather, Zenwill Lacob, who had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, stage 4, five years prior to opening my business. He had been given practically 2-3 weeks to live. His oncologist told him to choose his dream destination -where he wanted to pass away, and to enjoy this time. Myself and my mother were not going to accept this and so we decided to overturn the world. Our first part of overturning it was looking at diet. Clean foods, non-genetically modified products. We learned a lot by just digging in. Not only on the internet of course, because I always believe that the internet is not a place to look for diagnostics …yet it does have some good information. I learned always to look who is sponsoring the link. At the time I was also living in London. I made good use of the libraries there and paged through books written many years ago, with a lot of wisdom and knowledge, not corrupted.. while my mom was already in South Africa doing her research on this side, I was doing the same over in England. 

We both came to the conclusion that a lot stems down to being food related, and lifestyle related. The kind of sleep we are getting, the air that we are breathing, the stress we are going through, the water that we drink, the supplements that we take… 

Of course we can’t take control over everything all at once. But we took control of what was in our hands. This is pretty much where our journey of discovery started. And nevertheless, we managed to reverse the pancreatic cancer from stage four into complete remission. 

What are some of your key food products that heal, support, and sustain gut health?

My main aim is to provide truly clean health. Not “nature identical” but actually “created by nature”. Gut health starts not only from a balanced diet and adding good probiotics into our system. I look at giving the possibility to the body of building healthy cells. Blood cells, the cells which create our organs, and the ones that speed up rejuvenation of our organs. In the beauty world we mainly worry about exfoliating our skin to look younger, but very rarely do we think of what really keeps us young. It’s not just the spirit that we have, but also the body that spirit holds. And we need to treat and rejuvenate this body from the inside out. As we age, our rejuvenation process slows down, our metabolism slows down, therefore the aging process attacks us faster, or becomes more visible. It affects our hormone passages, our sleeping patterns, our energy levels and our appearance -our own reflection in the mirror.

So, I chose the road in choosing the foods in my shop which are ‘clean’. Non-genetically modified -that is the first thing. Changing our DNA or RNA, in my view, growing genetically modified foods, should not be accepted by consumers. 

As much as we are going through evolution, our DNA will be changed accordingly through nature’s cycles. 

Also, by the way, thank you to the viruses. Because they are the ones helping us to change accordingly. But, I think when it is invasively done by human interference, by changing the structure of the DNA in supplying pretty much poisonous foods with genetically modified organisms, it is something that is definitely not in the same direction as nature intended. 

So, our products are not genetically modified , they don’t have pesticides, preservatives, artificial additives. We strive for things that have no cane sugars, or harmful, chemically created -sugar alternatives. That is our credo.

How do fermented foods compare to a compost heap? If we make the comparison or see the similarity of the colon as a natural forest or ecosystem?

I think this is very straight forward and very simple. Fermented food as we all know is filled with microorganisms and a whole lot of bacteria that are very friendly to our tummy. They help us to digest, to eliminate, they help us to combat the bacteria that is harmful and also parasites. They help our gut to stay clean. I think that is exactly how we can think about the idea of a compost heap, or any unwanted natural by-products that are left on the surface of the soil. 

These little natural bacterias and microorganisms clean up by decomposing, by recycling, by re-using and turning all the items in the bio-friendly matter and basically by digesting it all they land up cleaning the surface of our planet. And I would say fermented foods and the little friendly bacterias and microorganisms inside us do the same thing, they help us to clean out and they help us rejuvenate.

Are these foods not only important for our physical health, but also for our emotional and mental well-being?

I would say yes, absolutely.  Mental health and physical health are definitely interlinked. I would never separate mental health, emotional health and physical health. They go in perfect balance together. 

Do most people you meet generally rely on supplements like probiotic capsules for their “stomach to work properly”?

I think it would be a very good scenario if most of my clients, say at least 50% of people I know would at least start taking probiotics. Never mind having them in natural food form. But at least in capsule form. The way it appears to me personally, it is still a very very “raw” kind of topic that people do not entirely understand the importance of it. I meet people mainly who suffer from heartburn and stomach pain, and indigestion, and burny feeling, and gastritis, and ulcers, and a whole lot of different things. Just a really disturbed microbiome inside the tummy. And the first thing that they reach out for are anti-acid tablets or a pain killer. Which is another ball game. 

This will eat your stomach lining even further. Making it more raw, more inflamed. So I am afraid people really rely on chemicals in our world. The world has come to a point where it is spinning too fast and rather people will go for something cheap, for something fast, and we think the relief of the pain means that the problem has been fixed. 

And that is where the big misunderstanding comes in. It is only temporary relief, with long term side effects, most of the time. That is why homeopaths are one of the best people to go to address the problem, because they try to treat not the symptoms of discomfort. They actually try to dig deeper and to repair the body from the root of the problem. 

People who are in a better scenario at least start looking at the idea of trying to avoid things that might cause them an allergic reaction, or that which is leading them to ulcers etc and most of their problems are in the stomach. They at least try to avoid gluten and conventional dairy, and some go even further and try to avoid your average commercially produced meat. Well, I guess it may in some cases prove to be enough -but not in many. 

Then you get people who put more thought into taking care of their health by taking digestive enzymes. Last of all are the people who take probiotics in capsule form, or in liquid form. And a really small amount of people who actually are trying to have their probiotics in real food form. Which is your fermented foods and drinks. 

So ya, as much as it all sounds very sad, this is unfortunately what I have noticed in the past six and a half years.   

Our grandparents or great grandparents may be the last ones that still integrated fermented foods into their daily diet. Why are these ‘digestion-promoting foods’ so important for people to really be healthy in today’s modern world? Would you say that people in our society, say upper middle aged and younger, generally have lost some level of connection with these type of traditional foods that have sustained human health for centuries, compared to previous generations?

Well, this is quite a big question. The use of fermented foods were very much a norm in previous generations. It has changed because we have gone through modernisation in the form of things like fridges. Before, fermented food was something we could store over a period of time without requiring any freezing. Refrigeration wasn’t entirely available. I think that previous generations just managed to live closer to nature or found ways to live with nature. Maybe that is also why more and more interesting recipes have been discovered, humans had to survive, and survive in their best capacity. 

As the modern world has kicked in, I would say we have lost touch with nature or with our survival mechanisms and discovering new things just because we suddenly have become, I can’t say lazy, but it simply became ‘not needed’. It’s not a necessity anymore. If we need something we simple go to the shop, or go online and just get it. Or we simply put things into the fridge, and if it has gone off, well big deal, we throw it away. Hopefully in a compost heap. And if not, we just throw it away and go and get a new item. 

So, we really have forgotten that age-old ‘knowing’ of how to preserve food. Those discoveries which became our cherished knowledge stemming from previous generations, our grandparents and great grandparents.. they knew this and used to do things this way. 

We have lost our health along the way. 

I would say that it’s now the younger generation who is trying to understand the bigger picture of gut health. This new generation is starting to discover, or re-discover I would say, the benefits of fermented foods and of those little ‘people’ in the form of these beneficial bacteria. 

The main buzz words around these fermented foods are currently sauerkraut, kefir -which is our dairy product, and kombucha. 

Yet, it’s actually quite limited if you had to compare the amount of variety in fermented foods that we are still overlooking. 

Coming from a country that has lots of snow and fresh produce being very limited in the winter months, and if it was available, when it was available, food was really cherished and preserved to its best capacity.  

“Russians ferment anything and everything that you could actually possibly think about.”

We ferment fruits (not just the notion of making jam, we actually ferment the fruit). We also ferment mushrooms, vegetables, we even ferment some meat, as much as it sounds really really crazy. It isn’t the same as dried biltong. It’s actually a very awkward taste, but nevertheless it exists. So, I would say that fermenting is something that we definitely need to do, looking at the idea of not just being limited to things like kombucha, kefir and sauerkraut. 

We could actually have one whole separate shop offering just fermented foods. And it can last. There is no need for cooling fridges and the use of artificial preservatives in these foods. You have variety of colours on your plate, variety of tastes, variety of nutrition, and of course a sound biodiversity of beneficial bacteria here -optimizing and sustaining our gut health. 

What can we gain from learning to make our own fermented foods beside the age-old health benefits?

Making your own fermented foods can be an interesting experience, and can turn into a fun family activity in the kitchen for one weekend. It is again a connection with the past, a very wise past. For example, for myself, I keep a very old recipe from my great, great grand mother who used to ferment lots of things to survive through the winter and have ‘x’ amount of health inside us. I mean Russian winters are quite tough so we definitely needed to keep our immune systems up and there was definitely nothing fresh available. So, we have an old family recipe of how to make kefir. When I looked on Google and saw what recommendations there are for making your own kefir, I was very disappointed. How ‘shallow’ they are. But nevertheless, I guess if people just carry on experimentally working trial after trial, they will get themselves to the correct way of doing fermentation that would not only be the look of doing fermented foods but also have the benefits of fermented food.

What fermented foods do you sell at Green Baskets which are worth knowing about?

We sell the kombuchas -but we watch out for the content of sugars; also definitely fermented foods without preservatives -because fermented food is already naturally self-preserved on its own. Also, our fermented foods do not contain additives like even vitamin C powder. This is totally unnecessary if it’s a high quality fermented food product. Usually we use a good vinegar, non-irradiated herbs and spices or sundried unrefined salt, which is already nature’s preservative. Kefir too of course! (Kefir is not suitable for vegans). These are the well-known products, very accessible, yet not too pricey either. At the end of the day, these can be made at home with rich health benefits.


After her tertiary education in social sciences, humanities and romance languages through the University of the Witwatersrand (WITS) and UNISA in South Africa, Nicolette began her working career in the linguistic field while living in Spain and Portugal, and subsequently built up experience through various projects and developments inside the wellness industry upon her return. Here, her skills formation has focused on therapeutic modalities aimed at ensuring general wellbeing and mitigation of individual stress at grassroots level with a personal aim of supporting communities. Over the past 16 years, Nicolette has contributed various articles to specialist health magazine publications and blogs, and given presentations on natural therapies including Therapeutic Reflexology and Traditional Chinese Medicine while running her own private practice based in Johannesburg.

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