Fermented pork at Tong Tem Toh, Thailand. Photo: David Hammond

Pork is a meat that, in accord with the common kitchen traditions laid down by of our mothers and grandmothers, must be prepared well-done – when I was a kid, I was told the fear of trichinosis made raw pork a forbidden food.

Though the worldwide incidence of trichinosis is calculated by some sources to be close to zero, there’s an abiding fear of eating pork that is anything other than well done, without a touch of pink at the center.  There can, of course, be other pathogens besides trichinosis in meat, and eating raw meat – whether from pig, cow or chicken – does carry some risks.  

In Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand, we went to a cool little restaurant called Tong Tem Toh, which is very popular with the locals (always a good sign) and that serves mostly dishes popular from this region of Thailand.

Northern Thai cuisine features a lot of sausage (including a fermented version, served with fresh cabbage and ginger: fantastic) and vegetable platters with a dip of nam prik (a spicy paste of chilies, onions, garlic and local herbs that makes even steamed vegetables interesting and edible). We liked all of it, but the standout, the most memorable dish — though far from the most tasty – was a banana leaf filled with fermented pork, topped with a raw egg.

It was not a hit with my tablemates.

My daughter, Lydia, said “the smell was repellent. There was nothing that made me want to eat this dish. There was no ROI [return on investment].”

Wife Carolyn tried it and said, “I didn’t like the way it looked. I didn’t like the way it tasted. I didn’t like the way it felt in my mouth.”

There was a lightly sour taste to the fermented pork, which is called naem in this part of Thailand. The lactic acid fermentation that this meat undergoes contributes to the sour smell and flavor and inhibits the growth of dangerous pathogens, including salmonella (though that deficiency was perhaps corrected by the raw egg served on top of the naem). In this sense, fermentation is a way to “cook” the meat without heat.

Despite the pathogen-killing properties of the fermentation process, raw, uncooked food is inherently somewhat risky; that’s why menus frequently contain warnings about it (I’m guessing insurance companies suggest that restaurants provide such warnings to limit their liability and increase customer satisfaction).  It’s this concern about liability that probably inspired Five Guys on Lake Street to announce on their menu boards that all their burgers are cooked “well done.” You want a medium rare burger, go somewhere else; for Five Guys, they are not going to risk that anyone comes back complaining that that they became ill from eating one of their burgers (reports of tainted food at Chipotle has had a significant effect on their business, as we discussed last month). 

Needless to say, most restaurants in Thailand are less concerned about litigation (it is not, like ours, a lawsuit crazed society). Nonetheless, I don’t think we went to a single restaurant in Thailand that would have passed an inspection by a U.S. health department. This is not exactly a criticism of Thai restaurant practices, but when you go out to eat in Thailand, expect a somewhat lower level of concern for hygiene than you’d find in the States.

One of the great joys of travel is eating new things, and my philosophy is that if the food, however odd and unusual, is traditionally eaten by people in the country I’m visiting, then I will try that food at least once. Still, there are problems that might arise from ingesting strange and exotic foods, which is why I always carry a vial of Cipro (a broad spectrum antibiotic) in my backpack. I’ve never needed to use it.

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David Hammond

David Hammond, a corporate communications consultant and food journalist living in Oak Park, Illinois, is a founder and moderator of LTHForum.com, the 8,500 member Chicago-based culinary chat site. David...