Updated: Dec 31, 2020
After three months of sheltering in place due to COVID19, my Thai Cuisine program has started again and my classmates and I have returned to the kitchen. Our fist week consisted of getting back into the swing of things with an overview of Northern Thai cuisine. We made pork larb, noodle soups (Khao Soy and Khanom Jin Nam Ngiao), Northern Pork Belly Curry (Gaeng Hung Lay) and the famous delicious amazing Sai Oua (sigh-oowa) sausage. While I had made Sai Oua patties before, after my first trip to Thailand in 2017, I hadn't done the full job of stuffing the sausage in casings, so that was my big learning opportunity for the lesson. Using the meat grinder and the natural casing seemed like a lot of work that week, and didn't really leave me feeling too inspired to ever do it again- I peel off the casing anyway! But when we arrived at the North East Thailand / Isan region, my feelings towards the meat grinder changed.
This is when I discovered Isan sausage, Sai Krok. I had seen Isan style sausage sold at street food stands but it never really caught my eye. Visually, compared to Sai Oua, Sai Krok appears... not very special. Sai Oua is so packed with herbs and spices that you can see it through the casing; it's seasoned with so much fresh turmeric that when sliced open, the meat has a rich golden hue. By visual comparison, Sai Krok is a run of the mill pink dog.
However, I sort of knew that Sai Krok couldn't be a plain Jane boring dog - because we're talking about Thailand's Isan region; a place where people create delicious complex cuisine in a largely barren landscape. They are a shining example of creating something from nothing.
So I arrived in class with my curiosity peaked. What will my friend's in Isan have in store for me? What invisible ingredient could they be using to make their local sausage something special? The answer, I learned, was microbes.
Sai Krok is a fermented sausage. As all of us home picklers and fermenters know, microbes aka fermentation is THE magical invisible ingredient that takes an ingredient from just fine to really amazing. Fermentation turns cacao into chocolate and grape juice into champagne! I don't think I need to go on to name a million other fermented foods, I think we're all familiar by now!
I've been experimenting with fermentation since 2012. I cut my teeth on dill pickles and then moved into kimchi, hot sauces, water kefir, kombucha, krouts and yogurts. The one thing I hadn't tried fermenting was meat products, until now.
In class, we sat through our Sai Krok demo as usual, watching the demonstration on the seasoning, working with the natural casing and meat grinder and tying the sausage into links using string. We were given samples of fresh sausage and fermented sausage so we could decide which we preferred. (Spoiler: everyone preferred the fermented version). For the purposes of grading our work, we would be grilling the sausages we made that same day, obviously without fermenting. However, the Chef encouraged us to try fermenting our sausages at home, and said she only required us to present 2 sausages for her to grade; that would leave us with a long link of sausages to hang.
Her instructions for fermentation were very simple. Find a well ventilated area outside of direct sunlight, and hang them to ferment for 2-3 days. Thai people do this outside, so that's at the 85-100'F temperature mark; leaving them out during the day when they can keep an eye on them, and bringing them inside at night to keep them safe from neighborhood pets and pests. She advised if we were to do this in a cold country, the fermentation would happen much slower and we might not see any flavor development for 4 days.
I really wanted to try a new fermentation project but I worried about how I could ferment these bad-boys at home without inviting all of Bangkok's creepy crawlies into my home... But after poking around my apartment with a creative eye - I found a very obvious solution. I could hang them on my balcony, where I'd usually hang my laundry. My theory was, as the air conditioning fan blows directly on the laundry rack, flies and ants would be kept at bay. The constant air from the fan would also speed up the drying process, as that fan would essentially act as a dehydrator. When foods loose water from dehydration their flavors are intensified, so I thought this setup might yield quite a flavorful final product. I decided I could bring them in at night and leave them in the fridge, away from night bugs, and put them back out during the day with the fan to babysit them. Really, it just couldn't get any easier.
So why does this work? Admittedly, I was surprised that fermenting sausage required no special equipment or constant temperature monitoring. But I shouldn't have been surprised, because when have I ever used special gear to ferment? This ferment doesn't take long in Thailand, only 2-3 days, and the salt mixed into the meat is enough to keep the bad bacteria away while the good bacteria work their magic. The ingredients for this sausage are really simple: ground pork, salt, garlic (skins on), cilantro and cooked rice. The rice softens the texture and acts as a bit of a filler; though I think the rice is the ingredient that stops this recipe from being a really long ferment, like a salami. However, the garlic in the recipe makes this sausage smell exactly like Italian salami!
At the end of the two days, my sausage was smelling like Italian salami - so I knew I was in a good place. To be honest, I've never felt more like an Italian nona, than the moment I cooked up my first taste of homemade Sai Krok. The flavor was incredible, and I could not believe it was so easy to do at home! I started thinking about how fun this could be to experiment with, like - could I ferment a sausage with more seasoning like Sai Oua, or how awesome would it be to make these at home and then bring them to a friend's BBQ?!
While these are easy to make at home, they do require a bit of specialized equipment and ingredients. Obviously there's the meat grinder. You'll also need to know how to use the meat grinder. But in place of a meat grinder, I believe there meat grinding attachments for Champion juicers and KitchenAid mixers, which many people have on hand. Youtube University likely has a million videos on how to use a meat grinder for sausage, and Wiki How even has instruction on how to make this specific Thai sausage! However, I have heard from other students at Le Cordon Bleu, the French Cuisine students stuff their sausage casings with only a funnel - so that is a super low tech very accessible option. Lastly, there are the natural casings to source. I would guess that any meat counter or butcher would carry them. But that's basically it - it's definitely doable for anyone whose finds themselves inspired!