“Yes, we serve nose to tail, and brains to balls,” proclaims 100 Mahaseth, one of Bangkok’s new wave of restaurants that twists traditional Thai food into an Instagram meme. In this case, chefs Chalee Kader and Randy Noprapa treat the food of Thailand’s northeast to the trend of showcasing the uglier bits of meat that used to be normal fare, before today’s prissy butchery of unblemished cutlets and gristle-free chops. With affluence, Bangkok gourmets became squeamish. Now some venture to eat, as the late Anthony Bourdain might have put it, animal parts unknown. Try duck with bile at Mahaseth, or pig brain with chilli paste.
Nose-to-tail eating had made an earlier foray into Bangkok, in the now closed roastery Smith, which riffed on St John at Smithfield, London, where Fergus Henderson had earned tripe and trotters a Michelin star. Since then, Bangkok’s creative scene has gone through a paradigm shift, from appropriating imports whole to emulating the postmodern method of retrieving an indigenous craft and reconstructing it as “authentically” artisanal.
Tasting charcoal-powdered bone marrow transports me to the flip side of my life in Pacung, on the northeastern haunch of Bali. A suburbanite writer dividing time between the modern and ancient sides of Asia, I’ve been visiting this village for 20 of its 3,000 years. Unlike in the touristed south of Bali, life here hasn’t changed much for hundreds of years, and nor has its husbandry. That reflects in the peasant diet drawn from homesteads and markets and from fishers hawking last night’s catch. Fowl still range freely, deer-like Bali cows are washed each dusk at the black sand beach and most homes have a sty. Eating nose-to-tail here is not a posh lunch out but a village lunch in.
Bali’s 210-day year is crammed with festivals, in which feasting on babi guling — suckling pig — is integral to the rites. As is customary, the kitchen blessing of my neighbour Ketut begins with the sacrifice of at least one pig. It’s typically eight to nine months old, black-haired and flavour-packed. “Bali pigs are mostly organic; not like your chemical inflated pigs,” explains Purnama, an artist and cook. “We feed them naturally, on banana stem, sweet potato and papaya.”
It’s an all-sensory experience. The sight and squeal of a pig being bled cannot be forgotten. The slaughter and cooking is a sacred yet social occasion. The men pass around a shared glass for glugs of tuak, a sour, milky moonshine fermented from toddy palm juice, which must be drunk fresh.
Nose-to-tail becomes literal when the cleaned porcine carcass has a bamboo pole rammed down the gullet and out the tail end. Throughout the five-hour rustic rotisserie, Ketut uses lemongrass or banana leaves on a bamboo rod to baste the hog with cooking oil infused with turmeric, coconut oil and the island’s sea salt.
100 Mahaseth uses wood and corrugated steel to simulate the feel of a barn, as did Smith. Farmer Ketut uses lumber and steel sheets to hem in the roasting pit of smouldering neem branches that impart the smoky flavour. Friends take turns to rotate the spit leftways and right, like a steering wheel. One lets a toddler have a go twisting the hog. As my sister quipped: “There’s no way Balinese kids are going to grow up thinking their meat comes from a supermarket and not from an animal.”
During the Brahmin ceremony at Ketut’s kitchen, the mangku priest sticks incense in the roasted pig, snips its right ear and dings his Shaivite bell over curls of sausage. “We always reserve the belly bacon and right front leg for the mangku to take home,” Purnama says. “But never give him the trotter; that would be bad luck.”
Family and friends pitch in to serve the pig at least nine ways: crispy skin; succulent, fatty meat; deep-fried morsels; a spicy soup of bone, banana trunk and sweet-potato leaves; blood soup; crispy fried innards; sausages of blood and minced organs; and a red lawar salad of blood, liver, herbs and grated coconut. Puffed crackling requires a week of sun-drying, so it’s added at stalls and restaurants that have turned babi guling from a festive dish into a staple. This is the ultimate manual food: hand-reared, hand-slaughtered, handmade — and eaten with the hands.
Such practices have echoes in Thailand. Uncooked pigs’ heads are offered at Brahmin blessings. Roast whole hog is a delicacy of southern Trang province. Flattened piglets on a stick at the roadside signal a moo kata restaurant. And lawar shares much with pig’s blood larb salad from Isaan and Lanna; both dishes present a challenge to outsiders’ stomachs. Instant and invigorating, lawar conveys how this sacrificial feast is an act of transmuting life force. Modern people forget the transcendence of ritual eating as a bridge between nature and human nature.
“Laws are like sausages,” remarked Bismarck, the founder of Germany. “It is better not to see them being made.” In Bali, you do see how adat custom guides the making of urutan sausage, where the casing’s imperfections bring their origin to mind as you bite. In Bangkok, where most sausages come shrink-wrapped from conglomerate CP, the revival of farm-style eating is ruled by the Thai love of novelty. 100 Mahaseth makes its own take on sai oua sausage — oozing mince, fat and field-side herbs — only it’s served as a hot dog in a bun.
I’ve witnessed Thai communal cooking of festival food. But as Bangkok dining becomes more branded, expensive and high-concept, it squeezes out informal eating, like squid vendor boats paddled up to seafood restaurants. Nose-to-tail resonates precisely because pre-prepared and processed food has divorced meals from their source. Urbanism also threatens Bali’s cuisine. Pacung has just got an Indomaret convenience store.
Nose-to-tail chefs act as translators for a cosmopolitan Asia cut adrift from rural Asia. This way of eating is part of a back-to-the-land movement that reacquaints hip diners not just with butchery but with husbandry. Farmers’ markets in Bangkok draw foodies. Chefs at Mahaseth and 80/20 chat to diners about their suppliers. Some menus tell of piglets gambolling in free-range pens, before describing their humane slaughter.
In parts of Bali and rural Thailand you can just about still be a “locavore”, eating cheaply what’s seasonal, indigenous and wholesome. In a metropolis, however, that’s beyond the reach of ordinary eaters. Nose-to-tail is a strand of fine dining for the cosmopolitan “cosmovore”.
Philip Cornwel-Smith is the author of Very Thai