Northern Thai in Western Melbourne: Bonus Content

Austin Bush has been hanging out with me in Melbourne over the last week and we’ve been doing the sort of thing that food bloggers do when they run into each other: drink every single pale ale made in Australia and New Zealand; eat several times a day with no regard for socially accepted “meal times”; and cook food that takes regional authenticity to ludicrous lengths which he has amply documented on his Thai food blog.

Both Austin and I are huge fans of Northern Thai food, the cuisine that skirts the Burmese border in Thailand’s northern provinces. He’s been spending plenty of time up there and myself, not nearly enough. Austin came up with a menu.

Here’s my take on it.

Sai Ua

Sai Ua at home

I’d been keen to make David Thompson’s recipe for sai ua in his book Thai Food for quite some time. It’s a greasy pork sausage from Chiang Mai that is packed full of chilli, lemongrass, coriander, shredded lime leaves and hog fat. You spot it throughout Northern Thailand as a , chopped into bite-size chunks and served in a plastic bag. The chilli-reddened grease from it coats the inside of the bag and as a consequence, your hand.

When I came across the handful of sausage recipes in Thai Food, it did make me wonder, how many of these recipes have ever been cooked by the owners of Thompson’s tome? Chiang Mai sausage making requires an interlocking interest in regional Thai cuisine and charcuterie. In my experience, these fascinations tend to be mutually exclusive.

I’m not going to repeat the recipe here. Do David Thompson a favour and buy his book. Recipe is on page 518. My liner notes for the recipe:

  • There is no need to smoke the sausage over dessicated coconut. Just grill it over an open fire. I get the feeling that Thompson added this step because it works in a commercial kitchen. If you’re cooking commercially, you can smoke the sausage in advance then finish the sausage on a flat grill because it is much quicker than the leisurely route of slow-cooking it over coals.
  • More chilli. The recipe suggests 6-10 dried chillies and we used about 20. If you feel unsure about this, grind up the sausage mix with only half the chilli then fry up a test patty. We still didn’t get the color quite right – it needed to be redder. The next batch that I try will use a mix of powdered chilli and dried chillies. Otherwise the mix of herbs is spot on.
  • If you’re using a commercial sausage maker, use the coarsest grind available and aim for a fat content of around 35-40%. They’re fattier than your average sausage and don’t need to bind as firmly as a western sausage. The herb mix can run straight through the meat grinder instead being pounded into a paste as Thompson suggests. The result is much closer to Austin and my recollection of Northern sausages, which have very coarse chunks of lemongrass and fine shards of lime leaf still intact.

Kaeng Hang Ley

Austin brought with him a collection of spices from Mae Hong Song, including the freshest turmeric powder I have ever smelled and the local Mae Hong Son “masala” powder, so we hit up Footscray for fresh ingredients. If you’re keen on making this particular curry, Austin has the hang ley recipe. For Thai ingredients in Melbourne, visit Nathan Thai Grocers at 9 Paisley St in Footscray. They’re amazingly well stocked with Thai goods and have a pre-prepared Hang Ley paste. At Nathan, we could find a Thai-brand sweet sticky soy and shrimp pastes just to take the dish to an extreme of regional correctness. As a coincidence, I already had Thai tamarind pulp (which is really no different from any other tamarind).

Pork belly is official local meat of Footscray. It can be found at every single butcher in the suburb, apart from the two lonely Halal meateries. I buy mine in Footscray Market because there are enough suppliers there that you can always pick out the right piece.


This recipe calls for young pea shoots and leaves, we had to settle for some slighty older and more bitter ones from Little Saigon Supermarket in Footscray. Multiple vendors had deep fried pork skin used to top this salad, but the Northern Thai-style of pork crackling which is cut into thin strips was nowhere to be seen.

Key Sources

Nathan Thai Video and Grocery, 9 Paisley St, Footscray. They’re friendly guys and even have a blog, documenting incoming Thai videos.

Little Saigon Market, 63 Nicholson Street, Footscray. Best for vegetables from across Asia. Also a good spot to pick up hard to find dried fish.

Footscray Market, 81 Hopkins St, Footscray. I only visit here for meats, mostly fish and pork.

Charcuterie fetish object

Diecast Meat Slicer

At the Art Deco exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria I noticed a diecast meat slicer made by Hobart that looked as if it was developed for the charcuterie needs of 1950s astronauts. I immediately wondered if anything of the like was available in my price range. The answer is not even remotely.

But I did find the above on Ebay for $15.

Despite a nice patina of wear, the blade remains sharp. It slices through home-made bacon with ease. It shaves salami in thin, papery slices. It has a degree of difficulty that makes it a danger to use; a little like rubbing your stomach and patting your head at the same time while holding a fistful of razor blades in one hand and a ham in the other. In other words, my idea of a perfect utensil.

Diecast Meat Slicer, clamp detail
Detail of the clamp. I like that the designers added an overhanging lip that secures the meat slicer to the edge of the table.


I’d love to know any more details out there about this diecast meat slicer. Beneath the slicer the imprint reads:

Automatic Production Limited
Repetition & Manufacturing


Registered Design No. 42073

There is no date, but I’d take a guess from the fonts used on the side of the slicer that it is from the 50s.

Cold smoking at home: Convert your Weber for $10

I seem to have infected my friends with the charcuterie virus.

What started with the occasional foray into a simple pork and garlic sausage is now ending in converting garden sheds into full-sized smokehouses to smoke lanjager and prosciutto. I had a recent discussion about the feasibility of airing ham beneath your average Australian home. It’s utter madness. The only thing that keeps my psychosis from blossoming is limited space in my apartment.

A limitation that I’m learning to overcome with ingenuity.

Converting your BBQ into a cold smoker

Cold smoking (smoking foods below 37°C/100°F) can be achieved through a few different methods: lighting a fire in large room to disperse the heat; cooling the smoke on the way into wherever you are hanging the food to be smoked; or generating as little heat as possible to create smoke. Smokehouses are the first tactic some of which include refrigeration to cool the smoke on the way in. Various barbecue forums mention using trays filled with ice to cool your backyard smoker (or smoking outside in the snow, further north), which constitutes the second method. The third method just needs a hot and very concentrated heat source

All you need to provide that heat is a brand new soldering iron ($9.99!). An empty tin can with the lid still partially attached will suffice for a smoke box, along with sawdust and a barbecue with a lid. A Weber-style kettle barbecue is ideal. Don’t use an old soldering iron: lead solder and food do not mix.

Cold smoking with a soldering iron

Punch a hole in the tin can, stick the soldering iron in and fill the can about a third full of clean sawdust. Turn on the soldering iron and smoke away. That’s all. I burnt the can over an open flame just in case it was lined with a lacquer but I doubt that it was.

The smoker maintained temperature in the barbecue at 18 degrees Celcius (64°F), 4 degrees above the ambient temperature. At that temperature, it’s cold enough to smoke butter. After two hours, two thirds of the handful of sawdust had burnt down to charcoal suggesting that for longer smoking, the smoker will need to be refilled with sawdust every three hours or so.

Smoking Coon Cheese: Tasty

My test cheese to cold smoke, alleged to be “Australia’s tastiest cheese”; definitely Australia’s most inadvertently racist cheese. I used hickory sawdust.

Cold smoker

After two hours, the cheese had taken on a heavy hickory smoke flavour but hadn’t developed the reddish color that comes from longer smoking. It is by far the best thing that can happen to Coon cheese.

More testing to come.

Making Bacon

Making Bacon

There is a descent into a darker realm when you begin cooking with a product labelled “CAUTION: Do not swallow”. The possibility of inadvertently killing your loved ones rises and your ability to rely on the way that a preparation tastes before cooking declines. The normal sensory cues that stop most sane people eating food that is deadly can no longer be relied upon. Things must be measured rather than guessed.

Sodium nitrite, the key to this particular charcuterie abyss, alone is not for human consumption. At least it says as much on the bag. But with it and a little pork belly, salt and sugar, you can free yourself from the hegemony of industrial bacon.

The Basic Bacon Cure
(from Ruhlman and Polcyn’s Charcuterie):

450gms of salt
225gms of sugar
50gms of pink salt (6.25% sodium nitrite; marketed as TCM, Instacure #1)

Method: Mix together thoroughly.

Buy one to two kilos of good pork belly. Lay about 50 grams of the cure onto a surface large enough for your piece of belly. Press all sides of the belly into the cure until it is covered with cure. Bag it into a zip-lock baggie, tag it with the date then refrigerate it for a week turning over every day.

Making Bacon

The wait is over. The belly firms up a little.

Making Bacon

Wash the cure and pork juice from the belly, pat dry, then roast for two hours at 100 degrees Celcius, by which time your house will smell like what I imagine the Sirens would have smelled like to the Argonauts, if Jason had have been in search of the Golden Ham. If it wasn’t nigh on impossible to buy a real American smoker in Australia, this stage would have been supplanted by a few hours over hickory smoke in the backyard. Damn Australian barbecue parochialism.

Making Bacon

Slice off the rind and eat it.

Apart from the possibility that my arteries would clog shut in mid-bite, I couldn’t think of any reason not to crunch away on it. Plus I have a congenital inability to discard anything that is remotely edible. The fact that it is crunchy and bubbling in the first place suggests that my oven is running much hotter than 100 degrees, so I may as well reap the only rewards of a faulty thermostat.

Making Bacon

Slice and fry to your heart’s continued malcontent. Your own bacon will be richer, juicier and thicker. More fat renders from it when cooked. It is texturally more dense and chewier than your store-bought fare. You’ll wonder how you were ever hoodwinked into buying the facsimile of bacon available in most stores and what other sad cuts of pork have been foisted upon you in the past.

Sausage Fancier

sausage fancier: urban garden

Once you’ve seen how sausages are made, you’ll want to eat nothing but sausages. This was my first impression of home sausage making; my second was that making sausages is possibly my true calling and that my university loan debts could have been better spent on a meat mincer and practicing the barbecuing arts rather than on undergraduate degrees.

I started with a setup familiar to all new converts to the testaments of sausage making: a copy of Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn’s Charcuterie and George Foreman’s Lean Mean Meat Mincing Machine. That George Foreman lends his moniker to an electric meat mincer is no great surprise to me. I discovered years ago that Foreman had made not less than nine billion American dollars from selling a multitude of appliances in no way limited to the indoor grill. The hypocrisy of adding the word “Lean” to a product that should be pumping out sausages that should be about 25% fat is not lost in me.

If you’re looking to lose weight, eating pork fat stuffed into a tube is not your best option. I’m sure that George would argue that his Lean Mean Meat Mincing Machine means that the home sausage fancier could control the fat content in their sausages just like he himself took control of his 1971 battle with Joe Frazier in Kingston, Jamaica, but I’d rather be eating richer, fattier sausages in moderation than the fat-free simulacra of a sausage. Fat is vital for human survival, just like the footwork Foreman displayed in his 1987 fight with Steve Zouski.

My first batch was perfect. I followed Ruhlman’s basic garlic sausage recipe and added a tablespoon of roughly crushed cumin seeds, chilli flakes, Kampot pepper, then lowered the salt content. The Lean Mean Meat Mincing Machine shudders away. I achieved the “primary bind” that Ruhlman mentions; once ground, the meat turns sticky as the protein breaks down. The casein skin burst only once while stuffing.

sausage fancier

I grilled the sausages over charcoal as slowly as possible. I ate them with friends in absolute stunned silence.

I’ve begun eyeing off the greying cut-price meats in the supermarket refrigerators with a single question in mind: will it mince? What else can I stuff? What memories of sausages past can I recapture? How much of my life has been wasted not making my own sausages?

If there is one thing you can expect from this blog in the coming years, it is more sausage.

My basic garlic, cumin and pepper sausage recipe

(based on Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn’s “Fresh Sausage Master Recipe: Fresh Garlic Sausage”)

Yields: about two and a half kilograms of sausages.

The original Ruhlman/Polcyn recipe calls for 3 tablespoons of salt. I ground in two tablespoons of this and fried up a patty of the mince to test the flavour before stuffing the casings. For me, it was salty enough but add more or less to your taste. Real intestine casings are tough to find in Australia. I went with casein.


1 tablespoon of cumin seeds, coarsely ground
1 teaspoon of dried chilli flakes
1 tablespoon of Kampot pepper (or the best quality black pepper you can get), coarsely ground.
2 tablespoons of the cheapest salt available*.
3 tablespoons of minced garlic
2 cups of white wine
2.5 kilograms of fatty pork meat (approx 25% fat. I used 2 kilos of shoulder to 0.5 kilo of belly)


Pound the cumin, pepper and chilli flakes in a mortar and pestle until most of the cumin seeds are broken. Finely chop the garlic. Chop the meat into pieces small enough to fit into your mincer. Mix meat, spices and salt together in a bowl and refrigerate for at least two hours.

Soak casein casings in one cup of white wine.

Mince all ingredients into a bowl set in ice, on the fine (0.25cm) grade. Add one cup of wine and mix the mince until it becomes sticky. Fry up a patty of meat to test flavouring, then adjust anything to taste.

Change mincer to stuffer attachments. Thread about a metre of casings over attachment and tie the end in a knot. Pour mince into mincer and stuff away!

Section the giant sausage into odd lengths by twisting the casings – it is much easier to make one metre-long sausage and do this at the end of the process rather than juggling the sausage and the mincer. Charcuterie has a twee picture of measuring a sausage with a ruler as to ensure uniform size; my approach is less anal but equally obscene. Cook over a fire, as slowly as you can bear.

For a much more pictorial recipe, buy Ruhlman and Polcyn’s Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing.

* – Expensive salt makes no difference when dissolved in food, especially in sausages such as these which are packed with other aromatic components. Jeffrey Steingarten tests this out in It Must Have Been Something I Ate.