I’m a little apprehensive about telling you that this Northeastern Thai fermented sausage is not just any sausage to me. Yes, it is one of the favorites among fans of regional Thai cuisine all over the US who pride themselves in not only knowing about but also enjoying lesser-known Thai dishes. Yes, this fermented sausage is indeed one of the most delicious things that have come out of Isan, in my opinion. And yes, it is not the easiest thing to make well even though the procedure is quite simple. But it is a sausage nonetheless, and — goodness gracious — do we need to romanticize a sausage?
It’s more than that to me, however — this post, this project. Not only did the making of this unique and sublimely flavorful sausage mark the completion of a most frequent request among many I have received in the last two years, it also fulfilled the yearning of someone who means so much to me.
On the day my cousins and I were clearing out our grandparents’ four-decade-old teakwood home to prepare it for the exterminators, we didn’t expect to discover anything other than perhaps a colony of well-fed termites in the attic. Instead, we found an old note that became the genesis of the sausage which is now gracing your screen.
A handwritten note, addressed to our late grandmother, was found wedged between the pages of an old Thai entertainment magazine where the Bangkok release of a new Hollywood movie, Superman, starring Christopher Reeve, was announced.
Written in the Northeastern dialect and with the penmanship bad enough to send the cockiest of epigraphers running to his mommy, crying, the note was a nightmare to decipher. However, once a quick scan revealed there was a recipe involved, I immediately put on my philologist hat and got to work.
The note turned out to be from an acquaintance of our grandparents who said he was too old and tired to continue his sausage business and thought he’d pass on his recipe to our grandmother since she’d been begging him for it for years.
Right away, we realized this was the man whom Grandma often praised as the maker of the best Sai Krok Priao (ไส้กรอกเปรี้ยว) or Sai Krok Isan (ไส้กรอกอีสาน) she’d ever had, and this was the recipe Grandma had misplaced upon receipt and the loss of which she’d mourned to us throughout the latter part of her life.
Little did Grandma know that, all this time, her lost treasure was inside a magazine, lying intimately against the Man of Steel’s gloriously red undies since 1978.
Though not from the Northeast, Grandma had eaten the best which the region had to offer. Spending her formative years in a northeastern province where her father – our great-grandfather – was governor back in the time of absolute monarchy, she understood Northeastern Thai culture and cuisine very well. And if she considered a sausage maker worthy of being elevated above many in Isan, we know we’d better pay attention.
these are about 5.5-6 inches long and 1.5 inches in diameter.
“You should make the recipe and blog about it,” one of my cousins said.
I gave him a 5-second blank stare and burst out laughing. Nobody in my family comes from the Northeast or knows how to make Isan foods other than the basics; our backyard or condo balcony has never seen a single rope of sausage – Northeastern or otherwise – swaying in the city wind, fermenting. The uncomplicated pork rib Naem is just about the only fermented Isan meat product I have ever made successfully.
“Grandma would like that since she never got to use the recipe,” my cousin finally came up with what would prove to be the very raison d’être of this post.
Not entirely equipped, I took on the challenge anyway. Accept the job first; figure out how to do it later.
But – as if a joke – the hard work of deciphering that old note produced nothing but a generic recipe for this quintessential Northeastern fermented sausage. It didn’t call for out-of-the-ordinary ingredients or require any obscure technique. You simply mix together meat, fat, garlic, cooked rice, and salt, fill the paste into the casings, ferment, and grill. Yawn.
However, the recipe is not entirely without a redeeming factor. The key to achieving great quality Sai Krok Isan – quite possibly the very reason instructions from this person meant so much to Grandma – is found in the concluding sentence loosely translated as, “Don’t put in more rice than meat; the rice must not be seen!!!”
One could say this is merely one person’s opinion, the dogmatic tone and excessive use of exclamation points notwithstanding, and that would be correct. But after giving this earnest remark some thought, I’d come to take it seriously.
My grandmother often spoke of Northeastern delicacies such as Mam (หม่ำ), a fermented sausage made with rice, chopped-up meat and innards filled into a cow’s gallbladder, and how its excellent taste and texture were nothing like anything she’d ever had anywhere. She also often spoke of what properly-made Sai Krok Isan was like, and how superior it was to many sloppily-made ones found all over Bangkok – the ones our generation has come to regard as typical.
If you’ve visited Thailand in recent years, you may even have come across a somewhat new variation of Sai Krok Isan containing copious amounts of bean threads or glass noodles (Wun Sen) in lieu of cooked rice. While this variation has certainly become popular among some, one can’t help but wonder whether it represents a clever twist on a classic dish or just another way in which vendors cope with rising ingredient costs.
and separated into individual bite-sized links when served.
My goal was to create a version of Sai Krok Isan that rivals those made by premium brand names and great restaurants that make their sour sausages according to the Northeastern tradition. The only thing that got in the way was the fact that I did not have the know-how possessed by premium brand names and great restaurants.
Most traditional Thai cured meat recipes don’t call for any kind of additives, and this one is no different. Home-cured meats have been made this way for ages. Regardless, the use of nitrite to keep the products safe from harmful bacteria is common among manufacturers for obvious reasons. Unfortunately, food additives and how to use them safely are outside the realm of my expertise.
Help — thank goodness — came in the form of Bob del Grosso, a former instructor at the Culinary Institute of America and an experienced charcutier.
“This is going to be easy,” said our knight in shining armor, and, boy, did my heart bubble up with joy.
In less than a month, after trying out different things, we have produced what I consider to be the most delicious Sai Krok Isan I have ever had anytime, anywhere. Grandma – no doubt – would have been so happy.
You can find out how to make Northeastern Thai sour sausage on A Hunger Artist.