For as long as I can remember, I was told to refer to my grandmother as “Jiao Yai” (Lady Grandma). As a kid in Amish country somewhere in western Pennsylvania, I thought all Thais called their mother’s mother this term. Grandpa would be content with being a “khun tha”, but grandmas required something a little better.
I found out my grandma was kind of like a princess when we were getting ready to move back to Thailand. Her grandfather Inthawarorot had been the 8th of his line to “govern” Chiangmai; her father had been slated to be his heir. Her family name was “Na Chiangmai”, which, like “Na Ayutthaya”, “Na Songkhla”, or the like, means “Of [insert town name here]”.
Because I am really shallow, I became interested in my mom’s family history because of my grandma. When there were family gatherings, like a big ol’ buzzard, I was there, devouring scraps of old family gossip, hidden (and not so hidden) resentments, embroidering a new mental narrative of myself. Family dynamics were fascinating to me — there were “greater jiao” and “lesser jiao” (guess which branch yours truly belongs in?) and celebrations featuring dancers with ribbons and peacock feathers where everyone dresses up in old Thai clothing and complains about the heat (that’s just me, actually. I sweat a lot, what can I say?)
Best of all, there is gorgeous, life-changing, extraordinary Thai food. Getting gussied up in diapers and gossiping are all well and good, but after a couple of times, that story about Uncle So-and-so in 1847 gets old. The food never got old. It became the reason I still lurk, an ever-hungry buzzard, on the edges of family conversations, inviting myself to this or that party against the wishes of everyone involved. There is gabong, battered and deep-fried pumpkin, beans and whatnot (northern Thai tempura!) with a sweet chili dipping sauce. A sort of gaeng som in crystal-clear broth with chunks of pomfret, intense and flavorful despite its prettiness. A nam prik pla rah (fermented fish chili paste), tangy and salty but strangely un-fishy. Gluay buat chee, bananas served in a hot coconut milk, soft and comforting and almost buttery in taste.
And then there is the sai oua (northern Thai sausage), which I will always associate with my grandma. Obviously, my grandma has never stuffed a sausage link in her long life, but her cook has made exemplary sausage since I was a little girl, and although lots of places make nice sai oua (Soul Food Mahanakorn, the 5th floor of Emporium), I will always associate this particular sausage — fiery, yellow, flecked with fragrant herbs — with her. Nothing compares to my Grammy’s.
Too bad it’s so hard to get the freaking recipe. When I call Porn, my grandma’s cook, it’s a list of vagaries: “Get some shallots — 10 baht worth at the market near Victory Monument … some garlic …” “How much?” “Oh, well … five?” “Five cloves?” “Well, yes.” “What else? What else?” “Kaffir lime leaf, coriander, oh, slice it really thinly.” “Are there seasonings?” “What?” “ARE THERE SEASONINGS?” “Well, salt, and fish sauce, and MSG, and [something unintelligible] and curry base … mix all of that together …” “Anything else? Is there pork?” “Oh yes, pork. Maybe 2 kilos? Soak dried chilies in hot water, and don’t forget the pak chee farang … don’t forget the turmeric! You can’t forget the turmeric.” After guesstimating a handful of shallots as “10 baht worth” and mixing central and southern Thai curry paste to get a nice orange color, I end up with a paste that I think will work. I also get a kilo of minced pork and a kilo of minced pork fat.
Luckily, it was way easier to stuff the sausages than to make up the stuffing. Jarrett Wrisley, the owner of Soul Food, was kind enough to let my friend Chris and me use his sausage casings (100 percent natural!) and his kitchen, as well as his sai oua expertise — we used a mixture of fish sauce, salt and soy sauce, just like Jarrett does for his own, MSG-free sai oua. Chris made a gorgeous Polish sausage, slightly tart and salty, and a nice chicken sausage studded with dried apple.
The final product? When I got home, the first thing I did was turn on the oven and cook my very first sai oua. The result: burnished mahogany, soft on the inside, juices running from the pan.
Again, there is lots of great sai oua in the world, but nothing compares to my Grammy’s.