Thai Fermented Sausages from the Northeast (Sai Krok Isan ไส้กรอกอีสาน)


thai sausage recipe
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.

Northeastern Thai Sour Sausage after having been fermented and somewhat air-dried

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.

thai sour sausage

Grilling is by far the best cooking method.

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.

thai sausage

Sai Krok Isan can be shaped into longer links like so;
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.

The sausage can also be shaped into smaller, rounder, links (2.5-inch balls).

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.

sai krok isaan

When shaped into smaller links, ropes of sausage are cooked whole
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.

23 Responses to Thai Fermented Sausages from the Northeast (Sai Krok Isan ไส้กรอกอีสาน)

  1. pigflyin April 23, 2011 at 3:46 pm #

    this is one of THE things that I like to learn how to do the most. In sydney we do have fairly good commerically produced Sai Krok Sian, but this is looking very very good. thanks you so much for bring to this to us.

  2. dp April 23, 2011 at 4:16 pm #

    Isaan sausages are THE BEST SAUSAGES EVER! We used to get them from an auntie who owns a Lao-Thai restaurant.

    I make Isaan sausages as well, but only recently tried fermenting them. Haven’t used the Bacteroferm, but do use the pink salt. I let them sit 6 days at 60F and they turned out very nicely, but I’d like them a little more sour. At least I didn’t give my family food poisoning!

  3. Rick April 23, 2011 at 5:58 pm #

    Never made sauages before…looks tempting… and delicious..

  4. Dorrie April 24, 2011 at 8:26 am #

    Even if I never will make these sausages at home, I really enjoyed your article about them, and the recipe, too! Just back from Isan, where I had them almost every day, I am already planning another visit to the region.

    BTW, since I pay attention to the cured pork ribs, I find them almost everywhere – just as you said!

  5. talida April 24, 2011 at 1:43 pm #

    Leela — thank you so much for sharing this with us! I believe your grandma would be very pleased with this post, and they look great.

  6. Joel April 24, 2011 at 3:29 pm #

    What would you estimate as the meat-to-fat ratio? I’d like to try this with other meats.

  7. Leela April 24, 2011 at 8:28 pm #

    pigflyin – You guys in Sydney are so spoiled. ;-) Lots of great Thai products there, I’ve heard.

    dp – Yup. The traditional method doesn’t require freeze-dried culture and nitrite, and letting the sausage ferment for 5-6 days sounds about right. With the culture, the results are much, much more consistent and predictable, though. As far as nitrite, I’ve seen arguments from both sides, and come to believe it’s an individual choice. One thing about sai krok isan is that, unlike naem, it’s always served cooked so at least *some* of the nasty bacteria, if there are any, would be dead.

    Rick, Dorrie, Talida – Thank you! :)

    Joel – According to the recipe, based on an assumption that pork shoulder is about 70% lean and 30% fat and pork belly fat is 100% fat, the ratio comes out to about slightly more than half (54%) lean meat and slightly less than half (46%) pure fat. You want the fat. You really do. I’ve tried one batch with much less fat and it was awful — just awful. It was dry and tough.

  8. Angry Asian April 25, 2011 at 2:04 pm #

    leela,
    this was such a great read, i love all kinds of grandma stories.

    a two day process! but judging by the pictures, so very worth it.

  9. Rosa's Yummy Yums April 25, 2011 at 3:21 pm #

    Those looks fasntastic! I bet they are very tasty and extremely scrumptious. I love sour sausages…

    Cheers,

    Rosa

  10. Bow May 10, 2011 at 12:28 pm #

    I love your language ka, it’s very beautiful.

  11. Leela May 10, 2011 at 1:39 pm #

    Bow – Aw, thank you ka. :)

  12. Ryan March 24, 2012 at 9:26 pm #

    Just ran across the post…the topic was the point, but I was delighted by your writing. Most excellent, I will peruse your other posts. Thanks!

  13. jh November 11, 2012 at 2:30 pm #

    any chance we could get that original translated found recipe without the additives?

    • Leela November 11, 2012 at 10:47 pm #

      Simply remove Bactoferm (and the water in which it’s dissolved) and curing salt from the recipe. You will have to let the sausage ferment longer — 72 hours or more, depending on ambience temperature. Cook one piece at 72-hour mark, and taste for sourness. When it’s sour enough, you can stop the fermentation. If not, ferment more.

  14. manicstar June 2, 2013 at 10:57 pm #

    I was wondering, if I wanted to make a version that had more sticky rice in it, what would I need to change? I love both versions, the one that is predominantly meat and the one with pockets of sticky rice throughout. Would love to make them both!

  15. belle August 10, 2013 at 1:07 pm #

    i never fail to eat these sausages when i visit thailand. So delicious :)

  16. Koda August 30, 2013 at 10:14 am #

    Man, I’d love to make this! But being from a portuguese family, I’m the only guy in my whole family who’d eat it , haha! Nevertheless, it looks amazing!

  17. Jay September 18, 2013 at 4:16 am #

    I’m drooling here! Wish I had the space to hang dry sausages, and I wouldn’t even know where to find casings locally! I’ll have to wait until my next trip to Bangkok, or perhaps Chiang Mai, to get some real sai krok. :(

  18. Franco Dunn March 11, 2014 at 8:35 pm #

    Where I cook we use a lot of buffalo milk mozzarella. It comes in containers filled with whey. Bactoferm is quite expensive. Now I use the bi-product whey to ferment my sausages. Genius!

  19. Duncan July 22, 2014 at 7:02 am #

    I’ve just orders casings etc …can’t wait to make and eat these. I will post the results on your facebook page Leela thanks again for a wonderful post.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Good Eats in Historic Bang Rak, Bangkok | SheSimmers - August 26, 2012

    [...] [...]

  2. Thai Tea Ice Cream and Coconut Ice Cream at Tipparos, Bangkok | SheSimmers - October 9, 2012

    [...] built their home (the one that later became food for termites, mentioned in my post on Northeastern Thai sausage) 15 minutes from that spot on the other side of the train track. It was at this house when, one [...]

  3. Barak Obama’s Official Dinner in Thailand: My Thoughts on the Menu | SheSimmers - November 19, 2012

    [...] the appetizer course: spicy papaya salad, grilled chicken, and North-East [sic] rice sausage (sai krok isan). Okay, so I guess we want to take the president to the Central Plains first with the first two [...]

Leave a Reply