On any road trip through Isaan, the vast region of Thailand bordering Laos and Cambodia, long vertical rows of sausage hanging from simple roadside frames are a common sight. Most of these sausages, light-brown in hue, and dangling in hotdog-shaped links, are sai krok isaan (fermented Isaan pork sausages), and are so universally popular among Thais of all regions that they can be found just about anywhere in the country. In fact, some of the best sai krok isaan I’ve ever tasted were served in Isaan restaurants in Bangkok.
On occasion while travelling in the northeast, I’d spot larger, heavier ball sausages of a deep red-brown hue. I asked Bangkok friends about these, but no one that I knew had actually tasted one, or even knew what they were called.
“They’re made from pork blood,” explained one Bangkok foodie when I described the sausage to her. “That’s why they’re red.”
I later learned that the anomalous-looking sausage was called mum, sometimes spelled mam, rhyming with the British for “mom.” I never saw them anywhere outside Isaan, and in fact even there it seemed that mum territory was confined to Chaiyaphum, Khon Kaen, and Kalasin provinces for the most part.
The relative rarity of this sausage only stimulated my interest, so when a northeastern Thai acquaintance in Chiang Mai happened to mention that she knew a couple who made mum at Khamthiang Market, I persuaded her to take me to meet them.
Wijit Sikaew and her husband run a rustic Isaan eatery in the market called Somtam Kalasin which consists of wood poles supporting grass-and-palm thatched roofing over a dirt floor. A couple of charcoal pots and a work table in a back corner make up the kitchen.
Amused by my keen interest in the backwoods specialty, Wijit drags me over to a large bucket covered with a well-worn white cloth. She pulls the cloth aside to reveal a huge mound of raw chopped meat and gestured for me to have a taste.
I grab a pinch, roll it in my fingers, sniff it, and realize that it’s beef, not pork. As it turns out, beef is the standard mum filling, although a few cooks do a pork variation. Placing the roll in my mouth, I experience a sturdy wave of tartness followed by savoury fresh beef tones and a slight iron-ish finish. Wijit explains that the addition of beef liver accounts for the enhanced flavour as well as the deep red colour. There is no blood in mum other than what is already present in the meat.
Wijit details how she combines eight kilos of hand-chopped beef and a kilo of liver, a half kilo of khao khua (toasted sticky rice, pounded to a coarse powder), a plate of cooked white rice, salt, and MSG. She lets the mixture age for a day, then squeezes out excess moisture before stuffing it into casings. For the larger ball sausages, cow bladders are used, and for smaller links, cow intestines. Wijit says that nowadays most of her customers prefer the link style as it’s cheaper—B20 (about 60 cents) per link.
Once the links are stuffed, she hangs them in the sun for five or six days to let the contents dry and ferment. Even after one day in the sun, the beef will be quite noticeably tart.
Some of Wijit’s clientele eat the links raw, but most order it either grilled or fried. I try a fat grilled link, and I’m blown away by how different it is from the more familiar sai krok isaan, or even sai oua, Chiang Mai’s own chilli-laced sausage. Mum is very dry in texture, with none of the fat globules or oiliness commonly found in other Thai sausages. It is almost like a dry salami in texture, but more crumbly
After talking to other Isaan cooks, I find there are as many home-grown mum recipes as there are mum-makers. Many add garlic to the mix. Some refuse to add rice, which speeds up the fermentation but, according to them, dilutes the richness of the beef. Some mum experts claim that three days of sun-drying, followed by two days in the shade, results in the perfect level of tartness and prevents excessive drying.
As with sai krok isaan, mum is always eaten with chunks of fresh garlic and whole bird’s eye chillis, served on the side. Some northeasterners also like to spice it up further with fresh young ginger slices.
MAKE YOUR OWN MUM
– 1 kg fresh beef
– 300 grams beef liver
– 6 cloves Thai garlic
– Half-cup ground, toasted sticky rice
– 2 kg cow intestines or bladder
– Chop the meat, liver, and garlic by hand so it’s fine enough to be easily formed into lumps.
– Stuff the casings with the mixture.
– Hang the links in sunlight for three days till dry and dark brown.
– Hang in the shade another day or two until the sausage tastes sour and salty.
– Break open the links into chunks, fry until cooked through, and served with fresh garlic, young ginger, and whole bird’s eye chillies.