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Larb-ly Lao

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The first time I had larb  a minced meat salad with loads of herbs  was in Laos years ago when the husband and I spent a lovely, but brief, week in the capital, Vientiane.
We had the dish for dinner practically every night we were there. Each eatery we went to had a slightly different version, and all of them were good. The food would always be served with a fiery Lao chilli paste, and this condiment went very well with the larb. I would mix the chilli sambal into my rice as if it were a pasta sauce, while my dining companion with the more delicate palate would have a timid dab of it on the side of his plate.
Larb is considered the national dish of Laos, although it is also a popular dish in the northeast  region of Thailand called Isan (also famous for it fermented sausages). Various kinds of meat are used for larb, and much as I loved it, I never found out how it was made or an English recipe book in Vientiane, so I never tried cooking the dish when we got back home. 
But that was 13 years ago when the Internet was still new  and terribly slow  in Malaysia and searching for recipes online would have got me nowhere. Type in "larb recipes" now and in 0.26 seconds, there are 83,300 results. 
With its complex flavours, I always thought larb was a difficult dish to make. It's not, but there's an essential ingredient that every good recipe says never to omit: toasted glutinous rice powder. In countries with large Lao or Thai communities, it is easily available in sundry shops selling ethnic goods, but I've never seen it in Malaysia. 
Not too fine: Homemade ground toasted glutinous rice
I thought at first that the ingredient referred to was glutinous rice flour  that's easy to get here. But that's actually plain ground glutinous rice. This toasted variety is easy enough to make at home though. Toasting the rice first gives it a nutty flavour so that besides acting as a thickener, it also adds flavour to the final dish.
The recipe for larb calls for minced meat. Here I've used chicken which I minced by hand. I find that the meat isn't completely pulverised and I can control how fine or coarse I want it. And I think not too fine is better for this dish. 
In Laos, the larb we ate came with plain boiled white rice or steamed glutinous rice. Individual portions would be served in cute lidded baskets such as the one pictured below. You pinch off a little of the glutinous rice with your fingers and scoop/dip it into the larb, then into the mouth. Oh, not forgetting the fiery chilli paste, of course! I had the dish with some pineapple fried rice instead, which I think is more Thai than Lao.
Serving basket for steamed (glutinous) rice and Lao sarong
Lao Spicy Minced Chicken Salad (Larb Gai)
Based on the recipe at SheSimmers. Makes 2 servings

300g chicken fillet, minced by hand (or use ready mince)
1 tbsp ground toasted glutinous rice (or store-bought powder), recipe below
2-3 shallots, thinly sliced
Fish sauce, to taste
Fresh lime juice, to taste
Grated palm sugar, to taste (optional)
1 fresh long red chilli, finely chopped (leave seeds in if desired)
Small handful fresh mint leaves, roughly torn
Small handful fresh coriander leaves, roughly torn

Heat a medium skillet/frying pan over medium heat. Add chicken fillet and flatten it into a thin patty. Press down to cook the bottom, but do not let the meat brown too much. Flip the chicken patty over to cook the other side, then gently break up the meat into small chunks. Toss around until chicken is completely cooked. There should be some liquid at the bottom of the pan. If it looks dry, add a little water and bring to the boil.
Turn off the heat and add ½ the ground toasted glutinous rice. Stir into the liquid. Add shallots.
Combine fish sauce and lime juice to taste, plus some palm sugar for a little sweetness, if desired. Add dressing to the chicken with the chilli. Taste and adjust seasoning. Add more ground glutinous rice if there is too much liquid.
Add mint and coriander and toss together. Serve with plain rice or glutinous rice.

To make ground toasted glutinous rice, put a handful of glutinous rice into a dry skillet/frying pan and toast over medium heat, tossing constantly, until the grains are golden brown. This may take 20-30 minutes. Pound or grind the rice until fine. I like it slightly grainy and that's what it looks like in the picture. Store in an air-tight container and use whenever a thickener is needed.


  1. I had never heard of this dish Jane, but it sure looks delish. I love the basket too, I imagine it is a small one, just adorable!


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