Recently, I have been craving Kasam Babi (fermented pork). Growing up in an Iban household, Kasam has always been on the table but I’ve never had an interest in giving it a try.
The thought of Kasam – which is basically fermented meat – to my younger self was unappealing until I reached my 20s and started craved my mum’s cooking more than ever as I lived away from home.
Nowadays, regular phone calls with mum would include me asking for her recipes.
But first, what is Kasam?
Kasam is a traditional Iban dish. If you’re Sarawakian, you would probably know of this as it may be a common sight on your dinner table, or you have seen local market vendors with their versions tied up in plastic bags and containers.
The term ‘kasam’ essentially refers to the fermentation process. There are many types of Kasam and it’s not exclusively for pork meat – popular Kasam includes Kasam Ensabi (mustard greens), Kasam Ikan (fish) and of course, Kasam Babi (pork).
However, the concept remains the same: leaving marinating meat with cooked rice and/or salt to ferment. Once the meat has been fermented for a few days, it is then cooked in various ways – steamed, as a soup and even, stir fried.
There are two common fermentation techniques
Every Kasam tastes different as it depends on who has fermented the meat and the way it is done. Varying areas in Sarawak differ when it comes to the way they make their Kasam.
According to my mum, there are two common ways to make Kasam:
- Using cooked rice and salt: The village my mum is from (Skrang, Entalau) ferments their meat with cooked rice and salt. The rice is added to give it a nice sour taste.
- Using just salt: There are areas that just ferment the meat with salt. However, she said it just creates salted meat and doesn’t prefer her Kasam this way.
Some people actually dehydrate the meat out in the sun for a few days before they ferment it. My mum personally does not recommend this as it may omit a specific smell and “doesn’t taste as good”.
How I made my Kasam Babi
I’m used to cooking with the ‘agak-agak‘ method. For those of you not familiar with the agak-agak cooking style, it is basically cooking with intuition, theories and no proper measurements. It uses a lot of eyeball measurements.
Plus, getting recipes from my mum has no quantities. But don’t worry, I managed to get some tips.
So, here are a few note-worthy Kasam tips from my mum:
- You can cook the Kasam three days after fermenting.
- To further the fermentation process, she recommends leaving the Kasam on the counter for one week.
- You can store your Kasam in the fridge (not freezer) for up to one month, which is great if you’re fermenting large quantities.
- If you are using making Kasam Ikan (fish), avoid boiling it as it’ll becoming mushy. Instead, steam it.
- You can cook your Kasam meat alone (with condiments, of course), or mix it with vegetables. Common vegetables that are cooked with Kasam include daun ubi (tapioca leaves), ensabi (mustard leaves) and cucumber. These vegetables should be fresh.
- Don’t use too much rice. Match it to your meat portion, but don’t overdo it. It is just to make it sour.
- For pork, you can use any cut. However, make sure you don’t include the bones as you want the rice and salt to penetrate the meat entirely. Try to include some fat in it to make it juicer and leave on the skin if you’re using pork belly.
Mum’s instructions for Kasam Babi
Disclaimer: mum says this is the “Skrang-Entalau” way, which is the village she is from.
- Cut your pork meat. Not too big but just the “right size” – I would said one inch to two inch thickness. Make sure the pork is not wet. You can pat it dry prior to this.
- Add cooked rice (mum suggested second day rice) and salt.
- Massage this in the meat well. Take your time.
- Pack into a container and leave it on the counter for at least three days before cooking.
Mum’s Kasam Babi
I asked her to send me pictures of her Kasam Babi process so I can gauge the meat cut size, and her quantities. I’ll add them here for reference.
After factoring her recipe and getting her to send pictures of her Kasam, here’s what I did:
1. Prepare pork, cooked rice and salt
I used pork belly for my Kasam, which is the most common type of pork part used for Kasam Babi.
I did not have second-day rice, so I just cooked my rice and let it cool to room temperature. For salt, I used the ones with the larger grains. I don’t think salt size matters but if you use fine salt, it will penetrate the meat more – so, don’t used too much or it’ll be too salty!
(Left to right) Ingredients to Kasam Babi: cooked rice, salt, pork belly slices.
2. Add in a bit of rice and salt
I added in a handful of rice to my pork meat but I should have lessened it as it became slightly mushy. The rule is to match your rice to your meat amount – you want enough to coat every piece.
Again, don’t add too much salt or it may be too salty. So add enough that every pork has a little salt on their slice. Plus, you can always add more salt to taste when you cook it.
3. Massage meat
My mum specifically said to “peruk manah”, which is basically means massaging it really, really, really well into the meat. This is THE trick to fermenting your meat perfectly. So, make sure you take. your. time.
You want the rice and salt to melt into the meat. Looking at the picture below, I probably should have massaged it more to make sure those rice grains were melted.
4. Pack it and leave it on the counter
After roughly a good five to 10 minutes of massaging, I placed it in a container and made sure to pack it down. I wrapped the container in cling film because I was afraid of insects, especially flies creeping in my meat.
5. Wait at least three days!
Wait patiently. Remember, you can keep it on the counter for a week. I’m impatient and always hungry so I’m going for the bare minimum.
Cooking my Kasam Babi
Finally, it was time to cook my Kasam Babi! Mum said to cook it with ginger, garlic, pepper, salt (taste first before you add because it would have been salty already), and a bit of chicken powder (I used Maggi Cukup Rasa).
After adding all that into my bowl, I added cucumber and a bit of water because I love to sip on the soup.
The meat, since it has been fermented, would be slightly pinkish when finished.
Verdict? Although it doesn’t beat my mum’s Kasam, nor would it ever, it was worth the wait!
Remembering the taste now, I’ll probably ferment more meat this week but I would probably pat dry the meat better as it was slightly wet when I opened the container after three days. This could either be because I accidently included a bit of water, and had put more rice than I should.
But, for a first try, I’d say I did pretty well!
Should you try it?
I would say Kasam falls into the either-you-like-it-or-either-you-don’t food category.
It’s an acquired taste so it really depends on your taste palate. If you do give it a go, let me know how it turns out below!