Larb, also transcribed as larp, lap, laap, laarp and laab, is a dish that doesn’t fit easily into western boxes. A highly seasoned mixture of chopped meat, fish, tofu or mushrooms – Thai food writer Leela Punyaratabandhu clarifies that laab “is a verb denoting the mincing of meat” – that, as fellow Thai food writer Kay Plunkett-Hogge observes, can “also be referred to as a salad by virtue of its being served frequently in lettuce leaves”.
It’s not even strictly Thai, though the travel hub of south-east Asia is where most Brits are likely to have come across it; a speciality of the north, it’s said to have originated with the Tai people, and variations on the dish are also found in Laos, Myanmar and south-western China. The one you’re most likely to be familiar with, though, is laarp isaan, from the north-eastern Thai region of the same name: as Punyaratabandhu explains, “the way lap is made varies from province to province, and it is hard to nail down a normative version – if there is one. But this version is the most common in Bangkok and at Thai restaurants outside Thailand. It also happens to be one of the simplest.”
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The meat (or not)
Almost all the recipes I try make it clear that almost any meat will do; as Plunkett-Hogge says in her book Baan, “feel free to substitute the duck with pork, chicken or rabbit … firm tofu can also be used, as can mushrooms for non-meat eaters”. I try pork (lean is generally specified), chicken, duck and tofu, and can confirm they’re all great blank canvasses for the seasonings. But my testers and I found the chicken breast I used in Punyaratabandhu’s recipe a bit dry, so although the meat should ideally be fairly lean (it’s not cooked long enough for the fat to melt), I suspect thigh, or a mixture of the two, might be a better choice if you opt for chicken.
Most recipes call for ground or minced meat, with only David Thompson specifying that it should be hand-chopped – the celebrated Australian-born chef tells Marina O’Loughlin that one should do this “just before cooking, so it doesn’t get a chance to oxidise, and you don’t get a bloody, messy mix”. Plunkett-Hogge, who sends me a video of a Karen elephant mahout chopping buffalo meat with an impressive-looking blade, says she likes to “hand-chop when I can – the meat should have a nice mouth-feel and a bit of texture. But my attitude is that the dish is so good that you can use what you can get. Most of my pals buy mince from the local supermarket or butcher. I don’t like a lot of gristle or lumps, but some do.” I also prefer the slightly larger pieces you get when you chop rather than grind meat, but if you’d prefer to buy mince, go for it.
If you use tofu, I’d recommend frying it in neutral oil on a medium-high heat until golden, rather than deploying the “ruan” technique “of cooking ground meat in some water”, which Pailin Chongchitnant of the Hot Thai Kitchen blog and channel suggests came about because Isaan is a “very poor part of Thailand, and … water is cheaper than oil, so if you can make something cook in water instead of oil, then why not?” Happily, this also leaves the meat juicy, instead of greasy, as Serious Eats’ J Kenji López-Alt found the fried variety, while poaching, he says, robs the meat of some of its flavour. He describes ruan, which fries the meat in a small volume of liquid, as “the best of both worlds”. My testers and I like the way he adds a little fish sauce to the pan, so the meat absorbs some of the intensely savoury flavour that’s a key note of the dish as a whole.
Often described as a salad, as Plunkett-Hogge makes clear, this is more down to the accompaniments than to the core ingredients, though she does tell me she likes her larb heavy on the shallots. These are perhaps the most common addition, usually finely sliced and raw, but I like the way Chongchitnant adds them to the hot pan to wilt. López-Alt fries his until crisp, while Thompson also mashes charred shallots into the mixture to give his version a slightly smoky back note. We find that the punchy heat of the raw variety (little red shallots are fierier than pink ones, but both will do) works best with the other pungent flavours at play here, but if you’d like a little more sweetness, you could go off piste and add crisp shallots as a garnish. Chongchitnant, López-Alt and Thompson all add spring onions, too, and the latter fried garlic as well, but I’m going to keep things simple and stick with just the one allium, because I’d like to taste the meat.
Punyaratabandhu starts her dish with toasted galangal, which has a peppery, slightly bitter, aromatic flavour, while Plunkett-Hogge adds the more delicately perfumed lemongrass. Both are fine additions, if you have them, but neither feels as if they make or break the dish, unlike the sharp shallots or fresh herbs, which, as López-Alt notes, “play a major role” here. Mint and coriander are most usual, with López-Alt also suggesting basil. A recipe from the Rosa’s Thai Cafe chain includes dill, which is a little left-field, perhaps, but easier to get hold of than the sawtooth coriander or Vietnamese mint called for by Thompson, which prove elusive even after a tour of London’s south-east Asian specialists. If soapy coriander and sweet mint are good enough for Punyaratabandhu, however, they’re good enough for me.
Punyaratabandhu informs readers of her book Simple Thai Food that larb should be “predominantly sour, then salty” – something echoed by Plunkett-Hogge, who describes its flavour profile as “sharp, hot and salty”. This means lots of fish sauce and lime juice, but not sugar – or at least not more than a pinch. The two tablespoons of palm sugar in the Serious Eats version reminds me of Plunkett-Hogge’s plea that the dish “should not be sweet. This is a huge bugbear of mine with Thai food – sugar has crept in where in should not be. Isaan food is sharp, hot, sour, salty – it’s a super-hot climate and you want those flavours.”
That heat comes from ground dried bird’s eye chillies. López-Alt cautions that the quality of the chillies is of utmost importance: “I’ve seen recipes that call for simply using dried red chilli flakes, but they lack the dusky, smoky and sweet-hot flavour of Thai-style dried ground chilli.” Fortunately, they’re fairly readily available in their whole form, and can be ground and added to taste.
Finally, we come to khao khua, or glutinous rice powder, an ingredient that sounds intimidating, but is literally sticky rice toasted in a dry pan and then smashed to smithereens in a mortar – in Chongchitnant’s opinion, “without this, it’s not a laap”. The ground rice adds a nutty, faintly bitter flavour and an interesting grittiness and, though it’s available readymade, it is much better prepared at home: as Chongchitnant notes, the aroma is “very fleeting”, so it’s worth making only as much as you need.
Larb should be served warm or at room temperature with a mixture of crunchy fresh vegetables (lettuce leaves, cucumber sticks, raw beans or cabbage) and steamed sticky rice. You could top it with fresh chillies and crunchy crumbled pork scratchings, as López-Alt recommends, but I think you’d be wasting time you could be spending eating.
Perfect pork (or chicken, duck or tofu) larb
Prep 20 min Cook 2 min Serves 2 with rice and vegetables, or 4 as part of a larger meal
3 tbsp glutinous/sticky rice, plus extra to serve 200g fairly lean pork, chicken thighs, duck breast or tofu (if using the latter, see note re frying above), coarsely minced or finely chopped by hand 1 tbsp fish sauce (vegan if necessary) 4 red shallots, or 2 round shallots, peeled and finely sliced ½-2 tsp Thai red chilli powder (made from ground dried bird’s eye chillies), to taste – I used 1 tsp, which made the finished dish quite spicy 1½ tbsp lime juice 1 large handful fresh coriander, roughly chopped 1 large handful fresh mint leaves, roughly chopped Steamed sticky rice, lettuce leaves, cucumber slices, raw green beans etc, to serve
To make the rice powder, toast the raw rice in a dry frying pan over a medium-low heat, stirring or shaking the pan very regularly, until it turns a deep golden colour, then use a pestle and mortar or a spice grinder to grind it to a powder.
Put two tablespoons of water in a small pan and bring to a simmer over a medium-high heat. Add the meat and a dash of fish sauce, and cook, stirring, until just done (even if you want it cooked through, be careful not to overdo it or the end result will be rubbery).
Take the pan off the heat and stir in the sliced shallots. Leave for a few seconds to wilt, then add the chilli, the rest of the fish sauce and the lime juice. Taste and add more of any of these to taste, then stir through the herbs and a tablespoon and half of the rice powder.
Serve warm with sticky rice and crunchy vegetables.
Laab, lap, laap, larb: it comes to us transcribed in many different ways, but which is your favourite version (I’m intrigued by spicy, offal-rich laab kua), and what do you like to serve it with?