If you are unaccustomed to the food of Laos, “mild” is spicy and “spicy” will rust your teeth, blow out your eustachian tubes and engorge the capillaries on your nose.
If none of the above occurs, you may exhibit first-timer’s flush by crying.
After that, it’s easy, particularly if you start with the Laotian tradition of sausage. Several varieties are made fresh every week at south Sacramento’s Samthong Meat Market – 2,500 pounds at a time. Walk past a few aisles of Asian sauces, spices, tea, canned milk and 25-pound bags of rice until you get to the meat department and a freezer case with walking yellow fish (catfish) and black chicken (Silkies). Taking up most of the space are the long-link sausages made on the premises.
Tawn Saephan is the market’s owner and sausage-maker. “We eat sausage at lunch and dinner, not in the morning,” says Saephan, who is Mien. “It’s not like breakfast sausage in America.”
The spicy sausage Saephan started with is made from a recipe more than 100 years old. It came out of Laos with his mother-in-law’s family. The first time Saephan ate it, he says “my eyeballs were on that sausage. I want to make it, it’s so good.”
Before he could process meat products at his store, he needed USDA approval. It took nearly two years to obtain a license. He’d send in paperwork. The USDA would send it back. “Our community needed this sausage,” he says. “We had no one to ask how to do this.”
Today, a certificate on the wall says Saephan is a member of the National Registry of Food Safety Professionals.
Every week, Monday through Wednesday, in a sanitized room behind the butcher case, Saephan makes three kinds of pork sausage – regular, extra-spicy, and a mild version with oyster sauce. A fourth sausage is chicken, described as non-spicy-spicy because it’s got a kick but nothing to run from.
Saephan starts by grinding boneless pork shoulder seasoned with sugar, lemongrass, green onion, cilantro, ginger and garlic. The pepper is one of the world’s most vicious – Thai chili pepper. And yes, like most sausages, Samthong’s contains nitrates and nitrites.
After each one-ton batch is ground and mixed, the rest of the work is done by hand, including the casing twists between each of 3,200 foot-long links. Saephan says Lao sausage can be sautéed, grilled or fried. It’s always thinly sliced on the diagonal and eaten with sticky rice (which has the effect of absorbing some of the heat). He says you can also slice the sausage into rounds and stir-fry them with vegetables.
For dinner at home, I fired up the Weber and grilled one package of extra-spicy and one package of chicken sausage, sliced them on the diagonal and served the sausage over rice with spinach sautéed with garlic.
If you’re planning on traveling to this part of town, stop and eat next door to Saephan’s store at Laos Kitchen first. Here you can experience the Saevang family’s version of Lao sausage.
They’re plump, about 6 inches long, and arrive at the table glistening as if coated in a mahogany lacquer, the result of deep-frying. Inside are green onion and shards of hot red pepper. While not the same as Samthong’s, they are equally delicious, a tad spicier than Samthong’s spiciest.
On Friday, the Laos Kitchen lunch special includes egg rolls in a flaky, thin skin; chicken wings stuffed with shrimp and cellophane noodles, and Lao sausage with sticky rice for $10.
Samthong Meat Market sausages cost $8.99 for pork, $10 for chicken. Saephan is keeping on eye on the rising cost of boneless pork shoulder, hoping he doesn’t have to raise the price for the first time.
As you reach into the freezer case, take note: Sausage with a red label is hot. Sausage with a blue label (pork with oyster sauce, chicken) is not. In addition to Samthong Meat Market, the sausages are also available at Welco, SF Market and Chunn Market.
Elaine Corn is an award-winning cookbook author and former newspaper food editor.