All over the world cultures participate in meat preserving traditions. The word charcuterie has become the catch-all term referring to the products of meat preservation. Charcuterie itself is a French word – referring literally to the store that sells tasty things – and conjures up images of wood platters loaded with thinly sliced European dry-aged muscles and salamis, pates, and other meat spreads, dotted with mustards and pickles. Although meat preservation is a global phenomenon, when I think of charcuterie it is primarily the products of the mild climates of Europe – suitable for hanging meats and letting them dry down for long periods of time. There are many books about it, but they all focus on the European traditions of meat preservation. Yet, where animals are slaughtered and it’s necessary to keep some from later you will find charcuterie.
Of course there is Lao charcuterie. Laos is a hot, humid country with typically little access to refrigeration. The preservation methods that come from there reflect that. The two techniques employed most frequently are to sour meat with fermentation, or to cure and dry the meat down – sometimes with the aid of a low fire – resulting in something like jerky.
The notion of fermenting pork doesn’t sit well with many North Americans. Conversationally I’ve noticed many people confuse the concept of fermentation with rotting. Controlled fermentation will preserve the food, and in many cases make it healthier for you (Check out Fermentation Pt1 and Pt2 for more). Rotting is the brown sludge your sad lettuce is swimming in at the bottom of your crisper. Rotting is bad. Rotting will make you sick. But I see with that rudimentary confusion why people seem uneasy with fermenting meats. There’s a perception of increased danger with meat, but that’s very rarely recalled when people are enjoying a tangy salami – a fermented, never-cooked grind of pork. All this to say, when practiced safely, the end product will be safe to eat.
Som moo means ‘sour pork’ and it is the ‘naem’ in naem khao. It’s a small uncased sausage that has variations all over Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. Some naem sausages are sweeter, and some are spicier, but as the name implies Lao people like it sour.
You can usually buy the sausages at Asian markets wherever there is a Lao, Thai, or Viet population. They’re usually finger width and are double-wrapped in plastic wrap with a chili pressed into each sausage. Usually you can find them under the name Naem Moo or Nem Chua. You can usually also get them from Lao aunties and grandmothers.
Or you can make your own.
WHAT YOU NEED
Full disclosure: I’ve adapted this recipe from The Hawker Fare Cookbook.
The meat mixture (called the “farce” when talking about sausage) of som moo consists of very lean pork – usually sirloin – and very thin strips of blanched pork skin. The other ingredients are salt, sugar, garlic, and in this case a store bought packet of Nam season.
There’s a company called Lobo based out of Thailand that puts together these meat curing mixes. I have hesitation about using pre-packed seasoning because I like to have control over all the aspects of the sausages I make, but everyone I’ve checked with assures me that it’s legit and in fact the right way to do it. (I’ll say it now so I can put it aside until the future, but there will be a post dissecting what’s in the packet, what each chemical does, and a guide on how to make som moo without it.) These packets of Nam seasoning are available at most Asian grocery stores anywhere there’s a Lao, Thai, or Viet population. They contain salt, sugar, an acidity regulator that quickly drops the pH of the meat to limit harmful bacteria, MSG, and some other stuff of questionable importance. Without having a lot of technical knowledge about sausages, the Nam package will help you make a tasty, safe sausage.
For 1 Nam package you’ll need:
1 pound of very lean pork trimmed of fat. I recommend that it’s fresh and fairly good quality. I hand cut mine into very small pieces with a cleaver, only to become convinced that using a grinder would be acceptable and much less labor.
You’ll also need 1/2 a pound of blanched, thinly shaved strips of pork skin. You can usually find this prepared in the frozen section of Asian grocery stores, usually in a small bag labelled Cooked Sliced Pork Skin. It looks like spaghetti.
Making sure everything is cold, mix your lean meat and your pork skin in a bowl. Add two tablespoons of finely minced fresh garlic, the Nam packet, one tablespoon kosher salt, one tablespoon granulated sugar. Mix it all together with your clean hand for several minutes until the mixture is tacky. It will take a while before the meat and the skin come together, but be patient. After several minutes of mixing it will be somewhat pasty and stick to your skin.
Next, using a digital scale, measure out 4-oz balls and lay them on foot square sheets of plastic wrap. One at a time, roll the balls out into log shapes inside the plastic wrap, and then gently push 1 Thai chili and 2 pieces of thinly sliced garlic into the outside of each log. Place the top end of the plastic wrap closest to you under the front of the log and roll it tightly, tying off both ends like a candy wrapper. You want to make sure that it’s tight with no air inside or else you’re risking spoiling the sausage.
Wrap the wrapped sausage one more time in a new piece of plastic wrap with the tied off ends folded in so they don’t unravel. Do this with each sausage. Once you’ve done them all, place them on a plate and put them somewhere warm (at least 20C) for 3 days. The top of the fridge works wonderfully. After the three days (including the day you made them) they should smell garlicky and sour and be firm to the touch.
Now they’re ready to be used in naem khao, or to be eaten sliced with your beer. At this point they’ll keep for 3 weeks in your fridge. They also freeze well.