Oil from the swine still divine

Despite the health warnings attached to pork fat, its popularity remains simply because dishes that use it taste great

These days people are more afraid of pork fat than they are of ghosts. It has a bad name because of nutritionists' warnings that it can clog arteries and lead to associated complications. But even though they fear it, people know that many tasty dishes either incorporate pork fat or use it in some stage of preparation. These include stewed pork leg, mu sam chan tom sai kluea (salty stewed pork belly meat), mu khem wan (sweet and salty pork) eaten with rice soup, kaeng khua phak boong kap mu sam chan (a mild curry made from pork belly meat and the shoots of a morning glory-like vine) and the sweet Chinese sausage called kunchieng.

GREASY DOES IT: To be at their best, ‘kui tio mu’, should be seasoned with garlic that has been fried until crisp in pork fat.

Before vegetable oils appeared, rendered pork fat and coconut oil were the main cooking oils used in Thailand. Each has its own special properties.

Coconut oil has the advantages of being inexpensive and easy to obtain. It is suitable for preparing foods that require a lot of oil like thawt man pla krai (spicy, deep-fried fish patties), nuea khem thawt (deep-fried salted beef), fried peanuts, kluay khaek (bananas dipped in batter and deep-fried to crispness) and pathongko (deep-fried, cruller-like pastries).

Coconut oil has an appetising fragrance but the process of extracting it is laborious and it must be made in large quantities. In the past, families had to purchase it retail from the factories that produced it and storing it was a problem. If it was kept for too long in hot weather it developed a rancid smell.

However, every family could make their own pork oil, and they knew how much they needed on each occasion so there were no problems with storing it. Pork fat that could be fried down to make the oil was not expensive.

Foods either stir-fried or deep-fried in it were delicious, and the solid left over after the oil had been removed from it could also be used in different dishes.

Pork oil was the oil of choice for making old-style Thai and Chinese dishes. The guru of Thai cooking, MR Kukrit Promoj, was always adamant about cooking with it even after vegetable oils became available, even though he was the president of the biggest vegetable oil producing company in Thailand. In the past, people took the fat from two parts of the pig, the first being the torso, which contains a lot of fat. After it had been fried to extract the oil, crunchy pieces of pork rind remained that could be used in preparing many dishes. This was known as man mu khaeng, or hard pork fat.

The second part used was the belly. Belly fat is soft with a mushy consistency, and as it was the less desirable of the two, it was cheaper. It was called mu pleo, or lard, and also yielded rinds when it was rendered, but they looked unappetising and were not used for cooking. They were usually thrown to the chickens or mixed with rice and fed to the dogs.

Rendering the oil from pork fat requires a certain technique. The fire should be kept low; this way a lot of oil is produced and the rinds do not burn. Freshly-made rinds from man mu khaeng mixed with rice and a little nam pla used to be a favourite with children. Almost any kind of vegetable could be fried in pork fat, and then some lean pork or minced pork or pork liver added. Housewives also sometimes liked to put in some pork rind to a variety of dishes.

Properly made kui tio mu (noodles with pork) should be seasoned with garlic that has been fried until crisp in pork fat with little pieces of pork rind mixed in. In the past, when the noodles were served without broth, pork oil was poured over the noodles in the serving bowl to prevent them from sticking together. Then fried garlic with pork rind together with tang chai (salty pickled cabbage stems), slices of boiled lean pork, ground pork, pounded peanuts, small dried shrimp, ground dried chillies, lime juice, sugar, fresh spring onion and coriander were added. The same basic procedure was used to make kui tio tom yam (pork noodles in sour and spicy broth).

It is not only pork noodle dishes that call for crisp-fried garlic and pork rind in pork oil. Beef noodles, the red-coloured noodle dish called yen ta fo, and Chinese Khae-style noodles, with their array of different kinds of meat, fish and tofu balls, also require it.

To make a really tasty steamed pla jaramet (pomfret), the fish should be steamed with soya sauce, sesame oil, khuen chaai (Chinese pickled celery) and little pieces of pork fat put on top before it goes into the steamer. The juice released during steaming will have the flavours of these ingredients, with a special richness from the pork fat. The pork fat should also be included when the fish is steamed with lime and dried salted plums, an alternative recipe. This added touch will make the dish especially delicious.

Little pieces of pork fat also go into old-fashioned khanom jeep (dim sum morsels made from wheat noodle sheets stuffed with a seasoned pork-shrimp mixture). They also go into authentically made ba-jang (a Chinese festival speciality of rice mixed with a variety of ingredients and seasonings, then wrapped in bamboo leaves and steamed). Many cooks who make these items for sale add the fat without worrying about the fact that many people nowadays avoid it. However, it has to go in if the khanom jeep or ba-jang is to be as tasty as it should be.

Fried rice, fried vegetables, omelettes and ordinary fried duck eggs are also only at their best if they are fried in pork fat. But these days, even if pork fat is used, the result will not be what it once would have been.

New breeds of pigs have been developed, and farmers use a technique that makes their layers of fat very thin. They also use feeds that make the animals grow quickly without accumulating much fat. Demand for pork fat has not decreased greatly, however, and restaurants that know how important it is for preparing many dishes have to pay more than in the past because of the limited quantities available.

Alas, most children no longer know the pleasures of hot rice with pork rind and nam pla.

Current nutritional trends may have driven pork fat into hiding, but it still maintains a large if quiet presence in Thai cuisine. It has lost none of its popularity among people who appreciate the taste of well-cooked food.

About the author

Writer: Suthon Sukphisit
Position: Writer