The first time I had pork trotter jelly (jelly ka muu) was at a family gathering of my husband’s. It was my first time meeting his family en masse, and it was a big deal: we had just been engaged in an odd ceremony in which his relatives had to bribe his way through various doorways in order to ask for my hand in marriage (my sister allowed him through the final door for a mere 20 baht). He now had to introduce me to the rest of his family. Needless to say, my husband’s family is very large — the descendants of 35 children birthed by seven wives — and there were many people to meet. It was an anxious night, and I didn’t really feel like eating.
The only thing that was easy for me to partake of without too much fuss was the gelatinous rectangle of pork meat in brown aspic right in front of me. It was cut in tranches like a meatloaf, and garlanded generously with fresh coriander leaves. Although there might have been a sauce to accompany it, everyone ate it with several furious dashes of Tabasco on top. It reminded me a lot of the jellied cubes that you get with a foie gras terrine in France, or the nice layer of gelatin on top of a high-quality pate. It was good enough, and I ate it without complaint at family gatherings for many years after.
I don’t know when it got to the point where I started looking forward to the jelly loaf of pig trotter meat, but, as with gravity on the jowls or gray hair in the eyebrows, that day just somehow emerged, as if in hindsight, a fait accompli. So when some family members of my husband’s invited us to a restaurant famous for its pork trotter jelly, I agreed to go without hesitation.
Jelly ka muu is a Teochew (or Chiu Chow) creation, common enough in Chinese restaurants in Thailand thanks to the fact that the majority of Thai-Chinese in Bangkok are Teochew. Out of all of the Teochew restaurants in the city, S.B.L. Restaurant is quite possibly the most famous. Yes, there is that time-consuming pork trotter jelly, accompanied by a bracing red chili sauce that beats Tabasco in terms of heat; but there is also its drunken chicken with two sauces, a garlicky green and a tangy chili-flecked brown; sautéed sea asparagus with bitter green Chinese kale stalks; a thick fried tranche of zero fish under a salt and pepper crust; two types of guaythiew lod, or stuffed flat noodles; and fried pigeon, drier than the European style but more aromatic. In short, this restaurant abounds in “signature dishes” and I haven’t touched them all. There were only 8 of us at the table, after all!
Do what you must to consume your way through the specialties, but make sure to keep room for S.B.L.s own “bua loy” (a Chinese dessert usually of black sesame-filled dumplings in a hot ginger soup). Here, the dumplings are deep-fried and rolled in sugar and sesame seeds, and they are delicious, quite possibly my favorite version of this old school dessert now. If you cannot stomach this dessert at the table, make sure to bring them back with you on your way home. You’ll thank me later.