The Pork-Blood Cake Stir-Fry with Green Onions That Got This Newsletter Started
"That is there. This is here. And here we eat this." (Bonus Track: What's Boobs Got to Do With It?)
Back in January, a journalist reached out to me with some questions for a piece he was writing. He wanted to know about the significance of blood in my own cooking and its role in Thai cooking traditions. After we concluded our email correspondence in which I told him all about the widely consumed blood-containing dishes in Thai cuisine, two people came to my mind: my late maternal grandmother and the late Thai novelist Wānit Charungkitanan.1
A few months before that, even though I set up my account with Substack and even wrote an introduction to The Epestle, I was too mentally paralyzed to get started on the newsletter. While everything else in my life was going well with so much to be thankful for, I was disoriented when it came to food writing—feeling heartbroken by no one and nothing in particular. Even my own blog had come to feel like a strange place where I didn’t belong. I was burned out. Such an odd feeling. I’d never thought I was capable of feeling this way about something I’d loved all my life.
I can see clearly now what happened. To quote Jimmy Buffet, it was my own damn fault. I allowed myself to be conditioned into thinking I needed people’s permission to do or say anything I wanted in the way that I wanted.
The first draft of my response to the journalist’s questions about blood in Thai cooking began with a paragraph explaining that—you know, actually—this is in line with the so-called nose-to-tail cuisine, a buzzword in the Western culinary world around the time I first entered food writing. I alluded to boudin noir and canard à la presse at La Tour d’Agent to prove my point of how—see?—the French, too, consumed blood both as everyday food and as part of haute cuisine.
To be clear, the journalist’s questions were straightforward, professional, and intelligent. There was nothing in his tone or words that made me feel insecure talking about cooking or eating blood in any way. It was I who felt less than; it was I who was fearful of how his audience would react to what I had to say. There was a time when I wasn’t like this. But the mean, racist, sexist things that had been said to me over the past decade whenever I had the audacity to write about or display on social media any food that didn’t meet the mainstream standard of aesthetics and class have conditioned me to adopt the preemptive approach. Over-explaining—being overly apologetic—was my missile defense system.
The preface went on for a couple more paragraphs until, finally, I got to the answer: “My favorite [dish]—and the one I grew up eating a lot at home—is phat lueat mu, a simple stir-fry featuring pork-blood cakes, cut into large cubes, garlic, lots of cracked pepper, and green onions. It's a home-style dish that you won't find at sit-down restaurants. Some food stalls or the so-called rice-curry shops will have it, but it's not a fancy dish or even a delicacy by any means.”
The moment I finished the last sentence with a period, my mind returned to a scene from my grade-school years. My cheeks grew warm with shame.
With a calm voice, she said in the way that only people who recognize their own worth can, “That is there. This is here. And here we eat this.” The whole time her eyes never left my classmate’s face.
A classmate of mine’s parents had to leave for an out-of-town trip very early in the morning and asked my mom whether they could drop off their son at our house on their way to the airport so that he could ride with us to school. Long story short, that morning, my classmate sat down to eat breakfast with us before we all left for school.
Now, at our house, we had breakfast together every single day. Sometimes we bought it, and sometimes we made it, but it was always a full-on breakfast and never just a piece of toast or hot soymilk. A bowl of rice congee with pork or seafood and soft-boiled eggs would be considered a light breakfast in our family.
Grandma stayed with us that week, and she volunteered to make breakfast that morning. The moment she placed a plate of her famous stir-fried blood cakes on the table, my classmate made a face, and instantly I felt resentful—not toward my classmate but my grandma. She knew I loved this dish, and she wanted to make it for me. But why this dish this morning? Why this dish when we had a guest eating with us—a guest whose father ran a local distributor for a European car brand, a guest whose family vacationed in Europe every year? Adopting Western cultures—particularly British, French, and American—and consuming Western products had always been a sign of wealth, education, and class in Thailand. It had been that way since the pre-globalization era of my grandparents’ younger years all the way to my pre-Internet, pre-social media childhood. Just for one morning, why can’t we show him that we eat bread and drink milk too?
“I usually have just coddled eggs and soldiers for breakfast at our house,” my classmate offered an unsolicited piece of information, refusing to eat what was in front of him. “My dad has nothing but tea, and my mom has cornflakes with milk.” Cornflakes. Of course. An expensive imported food item. Why wouldn’t the little brat brag about that when he had a chance? You could hear the unspoken words: My family is superior; we eat light because we belong in the white-collar class; we don’t eat heavy traditional Thai breakfast—that’s what rice farmers do; we go to school and work smelling like vanilla and Earl Grey; you have garlic, cilantro roots, peppercorns, and fish sauce on your breath.
I remember wanting to say that my grandpa, too, liked Kellogg’s cornflakes and ate them with his Singha beer. But Grandma went quiet, so I kept my mouth shut. Then with a calm voice—her eyes never leaving my classmate’s face—she said in the way that only people who recognize their worth can, “That is there. This is here. And here we eat this.”
Suddenly, I went from being ashamed of our breakfast choice to being ashamed of being ashamed of our breakfast choice. My classmate didn’t utter a peep afterward, and neither did I.
I proceeded to delete the preface to my answers to the journalist’s questions. All the explanation, the defense—everything but the actual answers was gone. Six weeks later, I wrote my first post on The Epestle. I no longer care what happens there—whatever there is. This is here. And here I do this.
What does blood taste like? People have asked me this many times. Even the person who wrote me once to say I’d “gone against the Lord’s prohibition” in Leviticus and other books by eating blood wrote again a couple of days later to ask—”only out of curiosity”—what blood tasted like and what the appeal was.
The blood that showed up most often in Thai cooking, especially in the central region where I grew up, is in the form of blood cakes, blood that has been congealed in brick-shaped molds. They are made from pork blood, chicken blood, and duck blood.2 The last two tend to be used as an accent ingredient—more like an extra on the set, not even a supporting actor, e.g., a slice of chicken-blood cake to garnish a plate of the Thai version of Hainanese chicken and rice (khao man kai) or a couple of small pieces of duck-blood cake in a bowl of duck noodle soup (kuai-tiao pet). It's pork-blood cakes that are the star; they're by far the most popular and used as the main protein in a few prominent Thai dishes with Chinese influence, ranging from a simple stir-fry to a soup or a noodle dish.
If you eat them with your eyes closed, you would be thinking you’re eating Jell-O made of unseasoned pork stock. They’re mostly bland, and, like tofu, they take on the flavors of the seasoning ingredients instead of exerting their own.
And this is because pork-blood cakes are—at least in my opinion—far better in taste and texture than chicken-blood cakes or duck-blood cakes. The latter two have a stronger metallic taste and a texture that is similar to extra-firm tofu, which, in the world of blood cakes, hasn't proved very popular—at least in Thailand.
In contrast, pork-blood cakes, especially when made well, have a very mild, almost creamy taste. If you eat them with your eyes closed, you would be thinking you’re eating Jell-O made of unseasoned pork stock. They’re mostly bland, and, like tofu, they take on the flavors of the seasoning ingredients instead of exerting their own. I would argue that people like blood cakes more because of their light, jiggly, and ever so slightly chewy and gelatinous texture than anything they have to offer in terms of taste. It's such a distinct and unique texture—a little bit of silky tofu with a little bit of Jell-O and a little bit of chawanmushi. I love it.
In Tom Yam Tham Kaeng (a posthumously published compilation of notable pieces from his food column in Matichon newspaper), there is one article that focuses on pork-blood cakes. In it, Charungkitanan recounted the conversation he’d had with a friend regarding how to find unadulterated pork-blood cakes among the inferior, adulterated pork-blood cakes that had flooded every market in Bangkok.
“When you make pork-blood cake soup, you start by lining the pot with a few layers of pandan leaves,” his friend said to him. “Then you layer the blood cakes on top, cover them with water, add some salt, and boil away—have you ever felt a woman’s breasts?”4
“Huh?” Charungkitanan was caught off guard.
“A woman’s breasts. Have you ever felt them?”5
The conversation swung back and forth between blood cakes and breasts for a short while. But the takeaway was that pure, unadulterated pork-blood cakes should feel like female breasts in their natural state. In contrast, pork-blood cakes that have water buffalo blood6 mixed in are considered inferior as they, according to the article, feel stiff like breasts with silicone implants. When you put an unadulterated pork-blood cake on your palm and move your palm back and forth, Charungkitanan pointed out, it should wobble and bounce to the rhythm and direction of your hand. An adulterated pork-blood cake, on the other hand, would hardly wobble.
I don’t know how many breasts Charungkitanan had felt in his lifetime, but that’s what he wrote. I’m not sure how he could get away with it in today’s climate, but you have to understand that Thais have a higher tolerance for impish humor like that, and Charungkitanan was a humorist who knew his audience well. The editor, after all, approved this portion of the text as a full-page pull quote, which means he, too, must have thought it was pretty darned funny.
For sure, neither of them gave a hoot.
What’s boobs got to do with it? I’m not sure. I’ve always used gelatin as an example. When shaken, adulterated or poorly made pork-blood cakes are too stiff; they don’t wobble very much.7 Good pork-blood cakes aren’t so soft and jiggly that you know they will fall apart the moment they hit the wok either.8 Blood-cake Goldilocks has just the right level of bounciness—soft and jiggly but firm—and feels nice in your hand, like, you know, good gelatin.9
The recipe below reflects the way my maternal grandmother made pork-blood cake stir-fry every time. Street vendors skimp on the garlic and the pepper and often pad the dish with inexpensive bean sprouts, and I’ve never been satisfied with theirs. I prefer that this dish be kept simple, allowing nothing to distract from the silkiness of the blood cakes. The sauce must be light in consistency but packed with a strong garlic and pepper flavor. No sugar should be added; we’re relying on the natural sweetness of the green onions.
The only thing that will get in the way of you and me, who live in the US, achieving Grandma’s standard—and this is beyond our control—is that pork-blood cakes available here tend to be much firmer than the unadulterated pork-blood cakes Charungkitanan described in his article. They don’t wobble or bounce very much, and they’re pretty brittle.
But here’s the good news: once they’re cooked, especially in the way described here, they get a bit softer and bouncier.
Pork-blood cakes can be found in the refrigerator of most well-stocked Asian markets. They usually come packed in water in a tall plastic deli container.10 Try to use them the same day you buy them, but in my experience, they should keep in the fridge for about five days.
Peppery Pork-Blood Cake Stir-Fry with Green Onions
1 (32-ounce) container pork-blood cakes (1 pound net weight )
2 teaspoons white or black peppercorns (or 1 teaspoon of each)
8 large cloves garlic
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
5 green onions, cut into 1-inch pieces, white parts and green parts separated
1/2 cup chicken broth or water
Fish sauce, to taste
Cooked jasmine rice, for serving
Drain the blood cakes in a colander, rinse it well under cold tap water, and shake off the excess water. Gently lay them out on chopping board. Try not to be distracted by thoughts of boobs. Cut into 1-inch cubes. Set aside.
Turn your attention to the peppercorns and garlic. Do you have a set of mortar and pestle? If so, put the peppercorns in the mortar and pound them into a coarse grind. Then add the garlic cloves and pound them until they split up and turn into small shards (we don’t want a fine—or, worse, smooth—paste). If you don’t have a set of mortar and pestle, let’s hope you at least have a pepper mill (or a coffee grinder dedicated to grinding spice) because this dish really tastes better if the peppercorns are freshly ground. As for the garlic, you have to smash each with the side of a heavy knife—a cleaver, preferably—until it splits open. Then chop the smashed garlic roughly. Set the mixture aside for now.
Heat the vegetable oil in a well-seasoned wok or a large skillet, preferably nonstick, over medium-high heat. When hot, add the garlic-pepper mixture and stir it around nonstop until fragrant; don’t let the garlic brown.
Add the cubed blood cakes, the white parts of the green onions, the broth, and 2 teaspoons of fish sauce to start. Give everything a gentle stir; try not to break the blood cakes. Cover and cook for 2 minutes.
Remove the lid and give it another gentle stir. Taste to see if you need more fish sauce. Add the green parts of the green onions. Give it another stir and remove the wok from the heat. The residual heat will continue to wilt the green onion tops.
Serve proudly and unapologetically—with rice.
I wasn’t able to find a reliable source that attests to how the writer spelled his name when he was alive, and there are just too many variants on the web. However, I do know for a fact that his wife spells her married name “Jarungkidanan.” But that’s the one romanization variant that isn’t attached to Wanit’s name anywhere online. Besides, it’s common knowledge that even Thai people from the same family, who share the same last name, do not always romanize that last name the same way. So I decided to romanize it according to the ALA-LC system. The result is Wānit Charungkitanan (the macron denotes a long vowel), which is how his name appears in academic papers and the Library of Congress records. The RTGS, the standard system for most road signs and place names, would have produced the same result without the diacritics.
Cow blood isn’t usually used to make blood cakes. My guess is that the tradition of making blood cakes in Thailand originated from the Chinese diaspora who favor pork, duck, and chicken much more than beef. Cow blood is routinely used (in liquid form) in traditional Thai cuisines in the north and northeast, however. Outside of these regional cuisines, the only place where you’ll most likely encounter cow blood would be at a boat noodle shop where it’s used to thicken the broth (more details in Bangkok).
Here’s a piece of his writing, translated into English. I haven’t read the original, so I can’t vouch for the accuracy or quality of the translation.
The story was unclear on the chronology, but I’m guessing the question was asked when Charungkitanan was still single. It’s the only way this makes sense.
Wānit Charungkitanan, Thom Yam Tham Kaeng (Bangkok: Openbooks Publishing, 2012), 252. (The English translation is mine.)
I’m not sure how long ago the conversation took place, but these days I’d say it’s more like that pork-blood cakes are adulterated with chicken blood which is far more commonly used than cow blood.
Which means you can’t reach in, fish out a piece, and do the palm-swaying test. Sorry.