When you add a dish to the menu that's got pork blood and MSG in it, you know that some customers will shy away. But that didn't stop LA chef Kris Yenbamroong from putting Luu Suk — a pork blood and MSG dipping soup — on the menu at Night + Market Song. "I knew it was going to be one of those things that would be polarizing," he says of the dish. "I wanted the restaurant to have the feel of a roadside canteen, like a shophouse. I thought I should have some food that's specific to places like that."
Yenbamroong's Luu Suk is a riff on a traditional northern Thai dish called Luu that can be found "in a roadside shack; ones that usually have bloody, offal-y things. It's not something you're going to find at a real proper 'restaurant.'" While traditionally Luu is made with raw pig's blood, Yenbamroong cooks his blood, which is why he added the word "suk" — meaning cooked — to the menu.
While a soup made with pork blood might sound extreme, Yenbamroong explains that it's actually simple fare made to be enjoyed with drinks and good company. "My friends and family up North don't eat it every day, it's for get-togethers, it's not something you eat alone." The fragrant soup is topped with herbs, pork cracklings, and Yenbamroong recommends diners think of the soup as dish they can return to throughout the meal, dipping and tasting throughout the evening.
The dish has earned quite a reputation in Los Angeles where LA Times critic Jonathan Gold recently described it as an example of Yenbamroong "aesthetic of culinary transgression." Apparently culinary maven Ruth Reichl refused to taste it. Eater LA editor Matthew Kang weighs in:
"There's no restaurant that better encapsulates the energy, creativity, and uniqueness of LA dining right now. Chef Kris Yenbamroong, whose parents have run the iconic Talesai on the Sunset Strip for decades, is bringing a remarkable sensibility to Thai cuisine. By eschewing classic technique for a more culturally grounded approach, Yenmbaroong has convinced scores of L.A. diners, who might be the pickiest in the country, to try everything from pig tails and fatty pork neck to a platter of pork's blood."
Below, the elements of the Luu Suk:
1. The Blood
The dish starts with pig's blood. Yenbamroong get his from "little bodegas and Asian grocery stores … mainly frequented by Mexican, Vietnamese, Chinese, and Thai grandmothers." The blood is sold raw and it has a texture like Jell-O. In order to liquify the blood, Yenbamroong uses a traditional Thai technique called khan, which means to squeeze or extract liquid. He takes lemongrass and runs the blood through it, massaging it by hand. "The lemongrass purifies the blood with fragrance, it cleans it in a certain way." He then strains the blood and repeats. This process is done ahead of time, the resulting pint of blood then ready for use in the restaurant.
While the traditional Thai dish features raw pork blood, Yenbamroong opts to cook it. "We can't serve raw blood here," he explains, not that he was hoping to. "The raw part of the dish was interesting, but I'm not trying to be a restaurant for adventurous food types." There are certain flavors, however, that Yenbamroong wanted to avoid while cooking the blood so he is careful not to burn it. "Tannic, livery, irony — that's what happens when you burn it," he says.
2. The MSG
Another reason why this dish isn't for the timid, Yenbamroong adds MSG. More specifically, he adds Ros Dee, an MSG popular throughout the Thai countryside that Yenbamroong brings back whenever he visits. He describes the taste as at once "almost like an instant noodle packet" and "like Doritos" and as ''intensely savory umami." In short: "It's delicious." He says that aside from the fact that Ros Dee is popular in Thailand, he also prefers it to classic MSG because the flavors are "rounder, more savory than sharp and salty."
3. The Cracklings
Yenbamroong says that serving the luu with pork cracklings is a compromise of sorts. The dish is often served in Thailand with fried pig intestines. "I would do that if we had more space and time," Yenbamroong says. "It's super labor intensive. And the dish is intense enough. I don't know if people are ready for intestines and msg." Pork cracklings, he says, are also served with luu and are much easier to make.
When it comes to the cracklings, he keeps things simple. He starts by salting the pork skin for 30 - 45 minutes. Then he washes off the salt before boiling the skins in salted water. Once the skin gets "super-soft," Yenbamroong slices them and leave them to dry on an oven rack. Once dry, the skins get fried. When they're done, Yenbamroong seasons them with salt only. "They come out flavorful," he says.
4. The Toppings
Yenbamroong describes the various toppings on the dish as "typical Thai accoutrement." The idea is to offer a mixture of "raw, pungent herbs," and at Night + Market Song this means thinly julienned fresh kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, pak phai (also known as rau ram), ngo gai (also known as sawtooth), green onion, and cilantro. Yenbamroong also tops the soup with fried kaffir lime leaves, which he says can be found on tables throughout the norther Thai countryside. The last topping is deep fried sen mee noodles, a "super thin," vermicelli-like rice noodle.
5. The Sauce
The final component of the dish is a naam jim waan sauce, which Yenbamroong explains is a term for any generic "sweet sauce." His is made with white vinegar, sugar, salt, and a little bit of chili. He explains: "A lot of Thai food is about balancing things out." The sauce allows diners to adjust flavors to their taste, a complement to the intense flavors of the dish. Yenbamroong says many people will drizzle the sauce directly over the soup, but he recommends considering it as another dip. "You can ignore it, but I always serve it … It's an important element for correctness, to be true to the dish, but it's not the star."
6. The Assembly
Yenbamroong combines the liquified blood with thick pork stock made from pig's feet. The idea of using stock came to him as a way to give the cooked blood a slick texture like the raw blood has. He heats the blood over indirect heat. "You don't want direct heat, the blood burns really quickly. In not burning it, the blood retains the same flavors as the raw Thai dish." The cooked blood and pork stock has a very similar taste to the Thai dish, but with a darker color.
Yenbamroong adds the Ros Dee to the bottom of the plate with nam prik laab. The spice mixture blends dried herbs native to northern Thailand including diplii and makwaen. It's peppery, and Yenbamroong describes it as having "hom" or a fragrant, round perfume. "It's hard to describe. It's like what does vanilla smell like? It smells like vanilla. This smells like the north of Thailand."
He pours the soup on top of the seasonings, and then adds the herbs, cracklings, and fried noodles.
Yenbamroong recommends eating the finished dish with sticky rice. He also adds that the dish is not a traditional appetizer. It's meant to be shared, and can be on the table for the whole meal. "It's the exact same thing as having olive oil on the table with a bread basket. Throughout the night you can come back to it."