Tua Nao: A Northern Thai Take on Fermented Soybeans

Cameron Stauch on tua nao, a type of fermented soybean that is an essential ingredient in the Shan kitchen due to its depth of flavor.

Tua Nao: A Northern Thai Take on Fermented Soybeans

Cameron Stauch on tua nao, a type of fermented soybean that is an essential ingredient in the Shan kitchen due to its depth of flavor.

This soybean product’s depth of umami makes it an excellent pantry addition for vegans or vegetarians cooking Southeast Asian cuisines.

by Cameron Stauch

Tucked away in Thailand’s mountainous northwest corner is some of the country’s most exciting and vibrant vegan food for which we have the mighty soybean, the magic of fermentation, and the ingenious cooks of the Shan community to thank. Thua nao (more casually romanized as tua nao), literally ‘rotten beans’ in Thai, is a type of fermented soybean that is an essential seasoning ingredient in the Shan kitchen. It adds a distinct depth of flavor to their simple, understated yet tasty dishes. It’s also another great source of umami for vegans and vegetarians to add to their pantry when preparing Southeast Asian cuisines. The fermentation process is relatively short and easy to do at home, wherever you are.

The Shan, also called Tai Yai, are part of the greater Tai ethnic family that originated in southeast China, who, over centuries, have migrated amongst the hilly regions of Nepal, northeastern India, Burma, Thailand, and Laos. Although the Shan diet includes meat and fish, traditionally, cooks don’t use fish sauce or shrimp paste. Instead, they rely upon tua nao as a flavor enhancer. This makes many of their dishes naturally vegan or easily modified. I like to think of tua nao as a plant-based substitute for shrimp paste or other fermented fish products.

At bustling morning markets, within a geographic triangle between the provinces of Chiang Mai, Mae Hong Son, and Chiang Rai, wherever there are Shan communities, you’ll find tua nao in two forms. Tua nao is typically sold as freshly fermented whole soybeans, shaped into six-inch oval cakes about an inch thick and wrapped in fresh leaves. Just as often, the beans are ground into a paste, pressed into thin disks about five inches across, sundried, and sold in stacks.

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