Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Larb salad

Larb (or laab or laap or, quite possibly, laarpb) is a salad from northeastern Thailand. There are a good many variations out there, all kind of complicated. The key, from what I've read, is balance between all of the different elements, but since we're talking Thai food here, this is the pyramid of circus elephants sort of balance, not the delicate flower arrangement of Japanese dishes. Did that metaphor work? Maybe Japanese food is a pyramid of crickets?

It's generally served rolled up in lettuce leaves, with papaya salad, with green beans, cabbage or spinach and/or with sticky rice.

5-8 ounces of lean pork, chicken, duck, whatever, with some offal thrown in if you've got it. I just used pork.
1 Tablespoon rice
2 Tablespoons chicken stock
1 clove of garlic, minced
1 pinch sugar
1 pinch salt
1 or 2 limes
~2 Tablespoons fish sauce, the serious good quality Thai stuff. It should smell awful straight.
~1/2 teaspoon chili powder, freshly ground if you can manage it
1/4 to 3 shallots depending on how big your shallots are, sliced thin
1 large handful of mixed mint, cilantro and scallions, chopped
1 Kaffir lime leaf, slivered

1. Put the meat in the freezer for an hour or so to firm up and then chop it by hand for a few minutes until it looks like it's been ground. Apparently this makes a difference. It only took a few minutes so why not?

2. Toast the rice in a dry pan until it turn brown and aromatic. Grind it in a spice grinder or mortar.

3. Squeeze the juice of 1/3 of a lime over the pork. Mix well and marinate.

4. Add stock, garlic, sugar and salt to a small pan. Heat over high heat until boiling. Add pork and cook, stirring, for a couple minutes until cooked through and kind of fluffy in texture. The pork will stick and then unstick as it releases juices. Because it's being cooked in the liquids it shouldn't dry out too much.

5. Turn out pork and accumulated liquid into a large bowl. Add fish sauce, a couple Tablespoons of lime juice and chili powder. Taste and adjust seasonings until you're getting sweet, salty, spicy, sour and pungent all at once.

6. Add the shallots, herbs, lime leaf and most of the toasted rice powder. Toss well. The rice powder should absorb a good bit of the liquid.

Serve with whichever of the accompaniments listed above that you'd like. I defrosted some CSA green beans and made up a batch of sticky rice, myself. Garnish with the remainder of the rice powder and maybe some leftover herbage.

There are a whole lot of flavors going on here. The sour spicy funkiness of the dressing is up front, but it's on a foundation of meatiness and has a variety of herbal notes brightening it up with the aromatic mint clearly present. I'm finding the mint a lot more harmonious here with the fish sauce and lime than in the Iranian context I used it in a while back. You can taste the toasted rice in there adding its own unique not-quite-nuttiness too.

There's a good variety of textures too with the chewy meat, crisp vegetables and tender rice.

This is a dish that rewards concentration. I was paying close attention while I was writing the description, but then I sat down to dinner while reading a book and, while the larb was still tasty and unusual, I missed the subtleties of interplay between all those different elements and now that I'm finished I regret that decision. Stupid five-minutes-ago-me, doing two things at once!


kat said...

It does sound like an interesting blend of flavors but that is so often the case in Asian cooking, or perhaps it just seems that way to a non-Asian

billjac said...

I think Thai cuisine has an unusually complex and robust base set of flavors to work with. This isn't an odd dish in that respect, but it may be an unusually pure representation of it.