Naem (or nem), also known as jin som in the northern Thai dialect (jin = meat, som = sour) is a common way of preserving pork meat in several Southeast Asian countries, including Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. In Thailand, it is mainly done in the northern and northeastern parts of the country – the land-locked regions where a lot of pigs are raised and pork features prominently in the local cuisines.
Naem wrapped in banana leaves
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In the days before refrigeration, when a pig was slaughtered, there was usually too much meat to cook and eat up fresh in dishes like laab, soups, curries and stir-fries. The remaining meat would be chopped up and preserved with salt. Pork skin, also often too much to eat up by cooking fresh, was added to improve texture.
Now as then, cooked sticky rice or plain steamed rice is used to make the meat develop a sour flavor. Garlic and Thai chillies are added to further improve flavor. In the olden days, pork fat was in the mixture as well, but in more modern times, naem is made mostly of lean pork meat, which gives a better color to the soured meat.
Naem maw (made in a large pot)
The sour flavor imparted to the meat from fermenting rice is distinctive and unique and is unlike the sour from citrus, vinegar, tamarind, or any other tart fruits. It is simply delicious and quite addicting for those of us who like foods with sour flavors.
Originally, the meat was cured by placing the mixture in a pot or a large bowl and covered to make it airtight, thus giving the name naem maw (maw = pot). Market vendors still sell naem in this form – that is, it’s sold bulk in a large bowl, the vendor cutting and scooping up the amount customers want and wrapping it in pieces of banana leaf, secured with a bamboo pick. In city markets nowadays, this form of naem is usually already pre-cut into uniform chunks and wrapped in plastic with a label slapped on.
More naem maw
Naem maw on top of naem taeng
Banana-leaf wrapped naem taeng
Later, naem began to be made in short, cylindrical bundles tightly wrapped in several layers of banana leaf and tied tightly with bamboo strings. Nowadays they are mostly made in long, sausage-like logs tightly wrapped and sealed in heavy-duty plastic wrap. Both these forms of naem are called naem taeng (taeng = cylinder). Naem is also tightly wrapped in small pyramidal shapes tied with bamboo strings. Often the leaf-wrapped packages are hung in a cool place (in the tropical room temperature) out of direct sun exposure and allowed to cure until the sour flavor develops. The banana leaf helps moderate the temperature of the meat so that the internal temperature does not get too warm. These days, these banana leaf-wrapped packages are often wrapped again in plastic wrap to keep the banana leaf from drying out.
Naem taeng (cylinder naem)
In modern times, plastic wrap has become prevalently used in wrapping naem, because it is easy to use and makes it possible for buyers to see the color of the meat. In the tropics where room temperature is fairly warm, it usually takes only 2 to 3 days for the sour flavor to develop, but in temperate climate kitchens such as in the Bay Area, it takes about a week. When juice or moistness can be seen through the plastic wrapping, the naem is usually ready. With the banana leaf-wrapped packages, buyers look for leaf wrappings that are not too freshly green, but not too dried out either.
Traditional & modern naem taeng
Naem Taeng Unwrapped
Grilled naem sausages
Sticky rice was originally used as the souring agent, but later the preference turned to regular cooked rice because it keeps the meat sour for longer after the sour flavor has developed and gives the meat a better pink color. Sticky rice, on the other hand, develops the sour flavor more quickly, but also loses the sour flavor faster, giving the meat a shorter window of opportunity for consumption at its optimal sourness.
Food platter, naem on the left
One reason why many northern Thais still prefer to have some of their naem wrapped in banana leaf is that it can be cooked by roasting in the ashes of their charcoal brazier, burning the outer layers of leaf to give the meat a smoky flavor. Often, naem is eaten raw and the small pyramidal leaf-wrapped packets are pretty and easy to serve individual people in a meal. Raw naem, appearing as those translucent, pinkish slices of meat, is a common part of the northern hors d’oeuvre platter, accompanying slices of spicy sai oa northern sausage, baloney-like moo yaw, crispy fried pork belly with skin (kaep moo), an assortment of steamed or boiled vegetables, and the favorite spicy green chilli dip called nam prik nuum.
Naem, ready to eat
Raw naem is frequently made into hot-and-sour yum salads with shallots, pickled garlic, Thai chillies, aromatic herbs and fried nuts, but if you are squeamish about eating raw, cured meat, cook the naem by roasting in banana leaves or by lightly steaming or baking before slicing to make the salad. But if you wish to enjoy the delicate texture of raw meat like Southeast Asians do in a safe manner, you may wish to freeze the sausage for about two weeks to kill off any parasites before consuming.
Sliced Naem with Pickled Garlic and Chillies
Naem Fried Rice
Other common ways naem is eaten in northern Thailand are: stir-fried with pickled garlic/leeks and chillies; scrambled with eggs and onions; incorporated into fried rice; deep-fried by itself in slices or round balls and eaten with fried peanuts, diced ginger and chillies; added to curries, spicy soups or stir-fries with mucilaginous vegetables like pak bpang (zan choi in Chinese or the “slippery vegetable”) or okra to reduce the mucilaginous property; sliced and tossed with crisp-fried rice, slivered cooked pork skin, fried dried Thai chillies, slivered ginger, fried peanuts and other ingredients to make a crisped rice and sour sausage salad – a delicious street and market food that has now become popular in many restaurants that serve regional cuisines in Bangkok and other major cities throughout the country.
Some More Thai Dishes with Naem Sour Sausage
Fried Naem Maw
Crispy Fried Naem Sour Sausage Balls
The picture to the above left shows naem maw cut into cubes, dipped in egg and deep-fried (naem tawd) at Kaeng Ron Ban Suan in Chiang Mai. On the right is deep-fried, crispy naem sour sausage balls in a crispy taro basket in a Chiang Mai restaurant.
Soup with naem
Naem Stir-fried with Egg and Spinach
To the above left is a soup made with the flowers of pak bpang (zan choi in Chinese) and naem to reduce the mucilaginous property of the vegetable at Come Dara restaurant in Chiang Mai. To the right is naem stir-fried with egg and spinach at Keuy Chiang Mai restaurant.
Crispy Rice and Naem Sour Sausage Salad
Crispy Rice and Naem Sour Sausage Salad
To the above left is Crispy Rice and Naem Sour Sausage Salad (Naem Kluk Kao Tawd) at Ton Kreuang in Bangkok. To the right is Crispy Rice and Naem Sour Sausage Salad (Yum Naem Kao Tawd) at the Isan restaurant of Vientiane Kitchen in Bangkok.
Naem Slideshow From Kasma’s Classes
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Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, March 2013