To view images of the sausage-making process, click here for a slide show.
In a Thai teakwood village along the Mekong River, each day begins the same way. While still dark, a dusty outpost in the Lao People's Democratic Republic, just across a muddy stretch of water, blasts country music at an ungodly volume. It's the first salvo in what seems like an international war of noise.
Then, hundreds of roosters that scratch between clapboard houses on both sides of the river start clearing their throats. At 7 a.m. the village of Chiang Khan, in Thailand, broadcasts its local news from huge PA systems, hurling sound back toward Laos. "Khun Pim's bicycle has gone missing," it bellowed one morning. "Please bring it back to her immediately. It is yellow."
In between the country music and the morning news, Pi Git and Pi Ton (I'll use nicknames for brevity's sake) also begin their day the the way they always do: in a morning market, searching for fresh cuts of pork, lemongrass, and garlic. They fill the wooden sidecar strapped to their 20-year-old motorbike with meat and fat and fresh herbs, then bounce back through the countryside as the sun rises over winter's dry rice paddies. Git and Ton make wonderful sausage, and while staying in Chiang Khan, I got to make that sausage with them.
I marveled at their skill—I've made sausage at home many times, and it's felt like a greasy fight against time and temperature.
Chiang Khan is in Isaan, in Thailand's rural northeast. Because the town is far north, where the steep Lanna mountains meet the parched Isaan flats, the topography here is more varied than in some other parts of Isaan. So is the cuisine, which is influenced by Laos and Vietnam as well as Northern Thailand. It's not unusual to eat a meal of Vietnam-style spring rolls cradled in herbs with some Isaan grilled pork jowl and a pungent, Lao papaya salad.
And then there's the sausage. While most outsiders probably don't associate Thai cooking with charcuterie, the Thais make great sausage. There are many styles, but two iconic ones: sai krok Isaan, where natural casings are stuffed with a mixture of pork, glutinous rice and garlic and left to ferment, and sai oo-ah, a sausage made in the north that is nearly equal parts pork and aromatics. Git and Ton, due to their unique location in Loei Province, make both.
As I chatted with the couple--both in their mid-50s--Ton washed a mix of pork shoulder and back fat under running water as her husband separated the membrane from a pork intestine for casing, using the back of a metal soup spoon. After washing the casings, he covered them in rock salt and left them to cure in the sun.
Photo by Jarrett Wrisley
"You'll never want to eat sausage again," my innkeeper had told me when I set out on my quest that morning, but she was wrong. We worked in a sausage-making idyll--the porky wastewater ran into a pond full of purple water lilies and catfish, and the only other sounds were cows wandering through brittle grass and rose apples falling on the thatched rooftop. Everything was spotlessly clean and there was a cool breeze. People in the rest of the world can only wish their sausages came from places like this.
Each day, Git and Ton assemble 35 kilograms of sausage to sell at the evening market and to a few restaurants. First the fermented sausage (sai krok) is made by grinding meat and fat (a about a 50/50 ratio) and garlic and glutinous rice together. Then, this mixture (about 7 parts meat to 2 parts rice to 1 part garlic) is worked by hand with a generous amount of black pepper, palm sugar, salt, soy sauce, and fish sauce, then cased.
Ton swiftly ties it in links with string, before hanging it up to ferment in the dry winter heat. "The garlic makes it sour, and along with the salt it preserves the pork," she explains, draping the neatly tied links over a weathered bamboo pole. "The longer the better, but we never sell it more than 2 days old just to be safe. We usually eat it at three."
The sai oo-ah, which is significantly more expensive, is a more complicated affair. First, about 5 pounds of lemongrass is stripped of its outer layers and shredded. An equal amount of water-soaked shallots is ground, and large bunches of dill and spring onions are chopped. This mixture of shallot, dill, chives, slivers of kaffir lime leaf and soaked dry red chiles and lemongrass is added to ground pork and run through the grinder three more times. The fragrance of onion and herbs fills the air. "You really need to work the herbs into the meat!" says husband Git, as he massages fermented shrimp paste and spices into a tub of pork red with chili and green with herbs that smell delicious, even raw.
Two hours passed, and though they hadn't broken a sweat, Pit and Gon had already assembled 70 pounds of sausage. I marveled at their skill--I've made sausage at home many times, and it's felt like a greasy fight against time and temperature.
Then Pit took a coconut husk that had dried in the sun and ripped it into a few, feathery pieces. She set it alight and did something that would make backyard grillers across America hang their heads in shame: she lit a large charcoal fire in about a minute with nothing but a coconut and a match.
The Chiang Mai links were grilled over slow-burning coals. During that time, a local police offer who caught a whiff came over for a taste of sausage. He then hung his hammock from two trees and took a nap.
Later that afternoon, my wife and I stopped by Chiang Khan's evening market to chat with Ton, who sells her finished product there from 5 to 7 p.m. There was a line at her stall, and after I made my way to the front she proudly posed for a final photograph.
As we walked away, we ate pieces of her spicy, herbal sai ooah on the ends of a stick, balanced with bits of yesterday's sour and salty sai krok. Our favorite sausage, the fermented one, was neatly bound with sticky rice and tasted cleanly of garlic, country pork, and dry age. The sun was setting purple over the river, the sausage was nearly finished, and bedtime was not far off.