Isaan food is a celebration of simple things, put forth very directly and forcefully. Your finger-licking renditions of gai yang (grilled chicken) and nuea nam thok (spicy beef salad) aren’t content to sit mutely on your tabletop, requesting your appreciation; slightly smoky and full of heat, they practically shout I AM DELICIOUS as you cram morsel after succulent morsel down your throat. Paired with a hank of sticky rice and the battalion of condiments that Thais cannot resist pairing with everything, they are unstoppable, a food army that cannot be resisted, taking up all the valuable real estate in your gut that you have reserved for something useful, like beer.
Moo Jum (located at the entrance of Suan Luang Soi 3 after 6pm) specifically traffics in these very dishes, the ones that make you sorry you stuffed yourself silly. Like most great Isaan cooks, they focus on straightforward simplicity. The namesake dish, an Isaan-style sukiyaki, is a spicy-tart broth in which unwitting vegetables, sawtooth coriander, Thai basil, pork and an egg are dunked, creating an aromatic melange good enough to eat even on sweltering hot nights. A simple spicy squid salad, rings of flesh barely blanched, dressed in sharp shards of Thai celery stalk and chili. And of course, their famed kor moo yang (grilled pork collar): sweeter than up north to be sure, charred at the edges from the grill, lacquered like a freshly-baked pie, as brown as the skin of a dedicated bodybuilder.
For all its supposed simplicity, I have struggled with this recipe. The basic recipe (as outlined in Chef McDang’s “The Principles of Thai Cookery”) uses a basic marinade of mashed garlic cloves, pounded coriander root, 1/4 cup of soy sauce, and 10 white peppercorns that is then slathered onto the meat. Very traditional, but nothing to set hearts aflutter. I tried to build on that recipe by going back to the marinade’s roots, substituting fish sauce for soy and adding some palm sugar. The result: ho-hum. I then tried to add molasses paired with fish sauce: NO DO NOT DO THIS EVER. It appears that where modern versions of kor moo yang are concerned, it is best to stick to soy sauce and build on that.
So last night, alongside an odd pairing of roasted cauliflower and soba noodles, I made some more pork collar for unsuspecting victims-slash-guests who had come over expecting dinner. The result was not awful! This is the best iteration of Moo Jum’s kor moo yang so far.
Kor Moo Yang (serves 4, just barely)
– 400 g pork collar (or shoulder)
– 4 garlic cloves
– 2-3 coriander roots, washed
– 1/2 tsp white peppercorns
– 1/4 cup soy sauce
– 1 Tb brown sugar
– 1 Tb sweet soy sauce
1. As in Chef McDang’s recipe, mash garlic, peppercorns and coriander root into a paste with mortar and pestle. Add soy sauce and sweet soy sauce and mash that all together to form marinade. Add brown sugar.
2. In a large mixing bowl, pour marinade over pork and allow to infuse meat, ideally overnight, or at least four hours.
3. When ready, grill meat until brown and charred a bit at the edges. If you, like me, don’t own a grill (why are American males so into grilling?), heat up a nice heavy pan (I use a cast-iron one) that has been oiled beforehand, and brown the pork until it’s a nice caramel-ish color. Then stick this into the oven that’s been set at 180 degrees Celsius for about 15 minutes, or until the edges gain the same charred edges and sticky-looking exterior that you would have gotten via grilling.
4. Slice and serve with a tamarind or sweet chili sauce, along with some sticky rice.