I’ve been eating Thai food since I was a very young girl. At the time I think other families congratulated my parents for having such an adventurous, culturally curious eater, but in reality, what kid wouldn't dip chicken fingers into peanut butter?
Over the years, I extended my exploration of the menu from satay to the tom kha gai, to pad thai and then the whole rainbow of curries. It was surprising, then, when once during grad school when I was out to dinner with a friend who asked the waitress at a campus Thai food restaurant what her favorite thing on the menu was, and she said something I had never tried.
She said “It has a really gross name, but it’s really delicious,” and this, my friends, is how I met larb. And it’s so dang delicious.
Larb is Laotian, but has matriculated into Thai fare as well, and thus into American Thai restaurants. There aren’t really enough Laotian restaurants in this country, huh? I’ll look into it. Sometimes the dish has another qualifier such as larb gai or larb suk referring to the type of meat used or the way it’s cooked, and sometimes it’s listed as laab, which is a much more phonetic presentation.
In general, we are talking about some sort of ground meat with lots of cilantro, mint and chili. The flavors are rounded out with garlic, shallots, and generous amounts of lime juice. The other key ingredient that is nearly impossible to pull off shopping locally is the addition of ground toasted rice, which adds a nutty flavor and crunchy texture to the dish. I’ve been making larb for years, but it wasn't until I dedicated myself to the toasted rice that I finally had a gem on my hands instead of a poor substitute for taco meat. Often larb is then served in lettuce wraps; I like to fork into it straight, with the addition of sticky rice (aka best rice).
In an attempt to learn how to make favorite dishes at home instead of routinely giving my paycheck away for someone else to make them for me, I’ve been cooking the dish at home recently. One of the fun things about the dish is how far each home cook can stray in order to cook to taste, or whatever is on hand. If you’re not into spicy, add fewer chili peppers. If you like salty, add more soy sauce. If you want a bite of sweet, whisk some honey and sesame oil together and throw it in the pan.
The other thing that works out great for me is the logical order of operations — lots of slicing and dicing can get done during different stages of the cooking process and as efficiency is one of my all-time favorite things, combining it with one of my all-time favorite meals is a day made.
In a nonstick skillet, start toasting about ¼ cup of a dry grain of your choice. I can’t find sticky rice at the grocery, but I’ve used tri-colored quinoa or broken up rice noodles to similar effect. While your rice is toasting, slice up and set aside garlic cloves, shallots and dried chili peppers. Once the rice is a good golden brown and aromatic, pour it into a bowl to cool. Now your pan is preheated and you can put one pound of a ground meat of your choice in and brown it up. I prefer local farmer’s market beef, but have also used lean ground turkey. Pork and chicken are more traditional. I keep the heat high so that the meat becomes browned and crumbly quickly, and I add garlic, chilis, and onions into the fat in the pan. This is also a good time to throw in chili flakes or garlic powder for extra taste or as a substitute for the fresh thing. While all of that is cooking, you can turn to your greens and start to chop mint, cilantro, and scallions, and squeeze lime juice into a small dish. I also save a few thin slices of the shallot for a garnish at the end for extra bite, and because I think it looks pretty.
Once the meat is cooked you can turn off the heat and stir in the fresh ingredients. I’ve added thai basil at this point, and a dash of sesame seeds when on hand. While the stove cools you can smash up your toasted rice with a mortar and pestle or food processor. I don’t own either one of those things so I smash willy nilly with other kitchen appliances. Distribute larb into your bowl, add an extra spoonful of lime juice, top with any herb scraps that didn’t make it into the pan and a drizzle of rice powder.
I actually don’t know how best to store it or how long it keeps, as I’ve finished the entire dish day-of every time.