It will probably not surprise you when I tell you I think Bangkok street food is the best in the world. It’s not just the flavors or the “above-the-title” dishes: the pad thai, the som tum, the I’m-gonna-kill-you spices or soothing coconut cream. It’s the sheer breadth of it, the mind-boggling variety — from soups and salads to grilled hunks of meat to curries to porridges to desserts and everything in between; even the formats change, from shophouses to mobile vendors to cafeteria-like khao gub gaeng (curry rice) to aharn tham sung (made-to-order). There is so much variety that sometimes people argue over whether something is even actually “street food” or not. Having been to a few countries over the past few year, I can tell you that this is a great luxury, to get to argue over what category So-and-So place actually falls into. Thailand is very blessed, food-wise.
To me, naem tod is an example of the awesomeness of Thai street food: a recent discovery that I now can’t help seeing everywhere I go. Naem, the beloved sour fermented sausage originating from both the North and Northeastern regions of the country. Usually made from a mix of pork, crunchy piggy bits like cartilage or skin, chilies, garlic and a bit of sticky rice, naem is wrapped up and “cooked” by leaving it to ferment for a few days, lending the meat its characteristic tang (for the record, my mother’s favorite naem maker is “Naem Anchan” in Chiang Mai).
Thais like to make sure everything is presented in its own special way, and naem is no different. The “proper” way to serve it — the best way to offset its acidity and slightly gummy texture — is with whole fresh bird’s eye chilies, fresh ginger, bits of rind-on lime, slivered shallots, roasted peanuts and fresh cabbage. What naem tod does is to basically combine the shredded sour sausage (or, in some vendors’ cases, pork skin or cartilage) with its accompaniments, chopped salad-style, and top it with Northeastern Thai-inspired “croutons”: shredded bits of deep-fried sticky rice. The ensuing salad is then tossed lightly in a spicy yum-like dressing (a mix of fish sauce, lime juice, chilies and sugar).
Naem tod vendors can be spotted by the glimpse of croquette-like deep-fried sticky rice balls they usually place on their carts — these vendors are almost always ambulatory. The fixings that go with naem are also included, alongside “fresh” veggies like the aforementioned cabbage, sawtooth coriander and/or betel leaves. As for the name, well, the naem is occasionally wrapped in the sticky rice and deep-fried, which I think is ingenious. But sometimes it’s just shredded, or there is an approximation of it via just using the crunchy pig bits, and that’s ok, because the flavors and textures are all still there: fiery hot and tart, mitigated by some crunch and a bit of bounce.
The vendor I photographed here is in front of the Kasikornbank near Sukhumvit 33; he is on Sukhumvit 23 in the afternoons. There is another one at the entrance to the shortcut to the Polo Club from Rama IV Road, next to the Esso gas station by the muay Thai stadium there. My favorite, though, is at the entrance to Petchburi Soi 14.