This month, we are headed to Thailand, a country with a cuisine that is popular all over the world, and we are starting with a very healthy and refreshing salad called larb.
Larb or laab (also spelled laap, larp or lahb, Thai: ลาบ, Lao: ລາບ) is a Thai and Laotian salad, composed of ground meat that can be cooked or raw, and mixed with lime juice, fish sauce, shallots, herbs, chili powder and toasted ground sticky rice.
Larb actually originated in Laos, where it is considered a national dish. It is very popular in Isan, a region that consists of 20 provinces in the Northeast of Thailand, as well as in the North of Thailand.
Many different meats can be used in a traditional larb, including beef (larb neua), water buffalo, pork (larb moo), and chicken (larb gai), and duck (larb ped). There are even some fish versions (larb pa or laj ntses), or versions that include a combination of meat and offal, especially kidney and gizzard. Today, I chose to make chicken larb or larb gai.
As I mentioned earlier, the meat in a larb may be raw or cooked, although you always have to be careful when using raw meat, and I would probably not go for a raw meat version if I were going to order it from a street hawker. As in many Thai and Southeast Asian dishes in general like Vietnamese summer rolls, fresh herbs such as mint or cilantro are an important component of larb. The salad is seasoned with lime juice, fish sauce, and dried chili pepper.
But the most important ingredient is probably khao khua (ข้าวคั่ว). In Thai, khao (ข้าว) means “rice” and khua (คั่ว) means “to dry roast”. Khao khua is finely ground toasted sticky rice. It allows the juice that comes out of the meat to thicken. It will also bind all the ingredients together, and provide some crunchiness to the salad. Khao khua is used in a number of Thai meat salads like laab and nam tok (น้ำตก), as well as soups like gaeng om (แกงอ่อม), and also in chili dipping sauces like nam jim jaew. You can easily find sticky rice in most Asian markets. It is also called glutinous rice, or Thai sweet rice. For the same dinner, I also used glutinous rice in a cooked version to make khao niao mamuang (Thai: ข้าวเหนียวมะม่วง), also known as mango with sticky rice. This binding ingredient is reminiscent of toasted chickpea flour which we have used as a thickening agent in a number of Burmese recipes a few months ago.
You can use any Asian fish sauce in laab. However, if you want to stick to authenticity, you may want to use padaek, a Laotian fish sauce that is a bit chunkier and aromatic, or the Thai fish sauce called pla ra, in which fish is fermented with roasted rice powder, and that is often used in Northeastern Thai dishes like green papaya salad.
Although it is common to find laab served in lettuce wraps outside of Thailand, it is not served this way in the Land of Smiles. In fact, larb is traditionally served with warm sticky rice, or raw vegetables, including cabbage.
Some people think that the name of the dish comes from a Laotian and Thai word which means “luck” or “fortune”. However, these words have different etymological roots, as the name of the dish comes from ancient Lanna language (north of Thailand), where the word for luck comes from Sanskrit. Laab may actually come from an older word which means “to chop finely”.
Most salads that are composed of vegetables, or meats and vegetables are called “yum” in Thailand. However, this salad is called “larb”, which is typical of northeastern and northern style as it consists mostly of meat. In those regions, eating larb is actually considered a sign of wealth as meat is a relatively expensive.
Larb was actually popular centuries ago among the Tai people, an ethnic people from north and northeastern Thailand, as well as some parts of Laos, Burma (Shan State), and China (Yunnan province). This larb from northern Thailand is called larb Lanna. It doesn’t include any fish sauce or lime juice. However, it Includes spices like cumin, cloves, star anise, prickly ash seeds and cinnamon. Also, the blood of the animal is often used. The raw meat version is called larb dip and the stir-fried version is called larb suk.
Nam tok (“waterfall” in Thai) is also a popular variant of larb. In Thailand (Isan region), the dish is also known as neua yang nam tok. It is very similar to laab except that sliced barbecued beef is used. In Laos, it is known as ping sin nam tok.
This was the first time I made larb or even anything that resembled this meat salad. It is very unique and doesn’t really taste like anything I have ever tried. Each ingredient brings something different to this protein-heavy salad. The herbs provide a surprising freshness. Larb is beautifully complemented by the combination of fish sauce, lime juice and chili powder, which offer a subtle balance of salty, sour and spicy flavors. And the toasted sticky rice provides a crunchiness that just makes this Thai and Laotian salad unbelievably delicious, and probably a salad that will become a staple at home.
But just don’t take my word for it. Make your own larb and see for yourself!
- 2 lb ground chicken or ground pork
- 5 shallots thinly sliced
- 5 tablespoons sticky rice
- 1 tablespoon fish sauce
- Juice of 4 limes
- Dried red chili flakes (prik bon – พริกป่น or similar), to taste
- 1 bunch cilantro , coarsely chopped
- 3 scallions , finely sliced
- 20 leaves fresh mint
- In a dry skillet, toast the rice over medium heat for about 10 to 15 minutes. Stir regularly so the rice turns light brown and not brown. Let stand for a few minutes, and blend in a food processor to obtain a toasted rice powder.
- In a separate large skillet, sauté the chicken over medium heat or until cooked through, about 15 to 20 minutes. Add a few tablespoons of water if necessary so the chicken does not stick or burn.
- Off the heat, add the shallots, scallions, fish sauce and lime juice. Toss everything together.
- Add the toasted rice powder and toss again.
- Add the red chili flakes, then mix in the mint and cilantro leaves.
- Serve with warm sticky rice, or raw vegetables, including lettuce, cabbage or cucumbers.