After I teased you with a preview of Naem in one of the recent posts, quite a few impatient emails have come in asking for a full post on this cured meat, one of the most delicious charcuterie products Southeast Asia has to offer. While the enthusiasm is encouraging, I strongly believe that if you’re someone who has never eaten naem (แหนม), let alone made it from scratch, it’s best that you take one baby step at a time. After all, we’re talking about fermented pork meat that is traditionally served raw; even those who grew up eating it rarely make it at home.
The type of naem most commonly found in Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos is soured ground pork (sometimes with pork skin slivers added to it). However, at least in Thailand, another sub-category of naem is just as popular. Chief among the members of this sub-category is soured pork ribs (แหนมซี่โครงหมู).
And that is the baby step I’m urging you to take before plunging head first into making traditional naem from scratch which can be intimidating. Making soured pork ribs — as scary as it may seem to some of you — is very easy as you’ll soon see. Also, for what it’s worth, of all the variants in the naem category, pork rib naem is my number one favorite.
One thing that needs to be said about the making of naem is that when it comes to fermented, preserved food product, which is what this is, there’s little room for improvisation. That is to say, do not tinker with the recipe unless you know what you’re doing. Jam makers know very well that you can’t change the amounts of acid and sugar in a recipe (which alters the pH values of fruit preserves) without running a risk of food poisoning from canned products. And even though this recipe is cooked all the way through, which pretty much eliminates the risks of E. Coli and Salmonella, tweaking it is not advised.
[This method of fermentation has been used for ages in Southeast Asia. But it would be wise to keep in mind the possible risks. Read this before you proceed.]
Naem is made by creating an environment wherein fermentation of the fresh meat is made possible by lactic acid bacteria. The naturally occurring microbes use carbohydrates — cooked rice in this case — as energy source. Salt is also another essential ingredient which both adds flavor as well as inhibits bacterial growth. You should not leave out or haphazardly change the amount of either the rice or the salt.
The end result will be pork ribs that are both sour and salty which is exactly what we’re aiming for since soured pork ribs are supposed to be eaten with steamed rice or sticky rice. Think one bite of soured rib per, oh, 3-4 bites of rice or so.
Other than the rice and salt issue and the please-please-please-don’t-tweak-the-recipe issue, the only things you need to keep in mind are as follows:
- Make sure your pork ribs are blotted dry before the curing commences. Although naemis not dry-cured, excessive moisture is not exactly your friend in this kind of curing environment. Rinse the ribs and dry them as best as you can with an immaculately clean kitchen towel.
- Make sure your hands and the curing vessel are clean. You don’t need to sterilize the glass jar (you can, if you want!), but commonsense dictates that it’s wise to work with a container that is very clean.
- Minimize the chances of spoilage by eliminating as much air as possible from the curing container. If you use a glass jar, try your best to pack the pork tightly all the way to the top. If you use a Ziploc bag, get rid of all the air before sealing the bag.
- I like my pork rib naem best after 3 full days of curing at room temperature. Some people prefer longer fermentation. I’d say anything between 3-5 days would be ideal. (For those who have a pH tester, shoot for 4.5-5.0.) This is based on the assumption that your kitchen is air-conditioned to about 70°-75°F. If it’s warmer where you are, the fermentation process becomes more rapid, and you may find that your naemis ready after only 48 hours.
- At later stages of fermentation, you will see that the color of the pork has changed somewhat. Don’t let the greenish hue of the pork, garlic, or rice freak you out; it’s perfectly fine.
- There’s no need to wipe or rinse off the rice-garlic paste when you’re about to cook the ribs. When deep-fried or baked, this paste forms a very delicious, crunchy crust that some of us adore.
- As I’m writing this, I’m beginning to feel that perhaps I’m saying too much about what to watch out for and not nearly enough about how wonderful pork rib naemreally is.Without breaking into a love song for cured pork mid-post, let me just say that there is a reason why people would go through the trouble of fermenting meat for 3-5 days. And that simple reason is that this stuff is amazing.
- 2 pounds of rib tips or baby back ribs separated into singles
- ½ cup cooked rice, packed
- 1.5 tablespoons kosher salt or 1 tablespoon regular table salt
- 10 large cloves of garlic, peeled
- With a mortar and pestle, pound together the garlic and the salt until you get a fine paste. Add the rice and pound until you get a fairly smooth paste. This step can be done in a small food processor.
- Rinse the ribs and dry them thoroughly with a cleankitchen towel.
- Mix the garlic-rice paste and the ribs together, making sure every piece is well coated.
- Transfer the ribs to either a very clean glass jar or a sealable plastic bag. Get rid of the air as much as you can, close the lid or seal the bag, and let the ribs cure at room temperature, undisturbed, for 3 days.
- After 3 days, check for sourness. That can be done by removing one piece of rib from the jar with a clean utensil, cooking it all the way through in a microwave oven, and tasting it to see whether you like the taste. If so, the curing can end at that point. If more sourness is desired, let the ribs continue to cure for up to 5 days.
- To cook the ribs, you can either deep-fry them or bake them in an 375°F oven on a cookie sheet until golden brown.
- Prepared soured pork ribs are best served with rice and fresh vegetables such as cucumber or sliced raw cabbage or lettuce.