Larb is a dish that goes back a long, long way and no-one knows how it began. The dish was eaten by the Tai people, as historians call them, who lived in the north of Thailand and neighbouring Laos, but who could also be found in China and Myanmar. Larb has survived the passage of time, and remains one of Thailand’s most popular recipes. Over the border in today’s Laos, it’s no less in demand, and some refer to it as the nation’s national dish.
To say larb is versatile is a total understatement. It can be made in a huge variety of ways, and much depends on the area where you’re eating it. It’s basically a spiced meat dish, and the meat can be variously pork, beef, chicken, duck, or even buffalo. Fish can also be used. If you’re a vegetarian, no worries at all when it comes to larb, as the dish adapts well to chopped tofu, or more or less any kind of mock meat.
Larb’s variations aren’t just confined to ingredients; the very way the word is transliterated from the Thai to English gives rise to a bewildering number of alternatives just to the way it’s spelled. Google it up for yourself and you’ll also find lahb, lahp, laarb, laahp, laab and so on. No one way is more correct than any other.
The general procedure is to first settle on the meat you’ll use, and then get creative with the spices. There’s no right or wrong here, but the stars of the larb show are definitely mint and chilli. Chinese five spice, lemongrass, coriander and a host of others may also make an appearance. The basic idea is to make the dish hot and spicy and then cool it down with plenty of raw, crunchy vegetables.
If you can’t buy the meat pre-ground, you’ll need to do some mincing; you can prepare the meat either in a food processor or you can simply chop it up yourself. For this recipe, start with boneless, skinless chicken thighs. Slice them up and then
chop them until quite fine. This can be the lengthiest step, but with practice the time can be greatly reduced.
Larb tastes best when it’s totally fresh, and it’s not one of those dishes that improves if left a day. Its taste deteriorates quite quickly. It can be safely stored in the refrigerator, but you’ll find that when you reheat it the taste and texture won’t be half as good. But don’t worry, it’s still great tasting if served cold from the fridge, rather than reheated. Some people eat it as a kind of low-carb meal – just omit the rice. Others take it to work in a lunch box and eat at room temperature.
The traditional way to eat larb is with the hands: make a small ball of sticky rice using the fingers only and use it to pick up a little larb, then eat with the vegetables. These days most people simply use a spoon and fork. Easy to make and satisfying to eat, larb is definitely a winner when it comes to best-loved Thai dishes.
Prep: 50 mins. Cook: 10 mins.
• 2 stalks of lemongrass
• 4 lime leaves
• 2 chillies,
• 5 garlic cloves
• 2 cm piece of ginger
• 8 chicken thighs
• 1 ½ tbsp vegetable oil
• 1 tbsp sesame oil
• chilli powder to taste
• 50 ml of fish sauce (or shiitake soy sauce as an alternative)
• 2 finely chopped shallots or red onions
• 3 ½ tbsp lime juice
• Roughly a half cup each of mint, basil and coriander leaves, chopped up very roughly
• Lettuce (don’t cut up the leaves)
• 2 cucumbers, sliced into longish strips and deseeded
• A small handful of bean sprouts per person
• A handful of long beans
• Four Thai eggplants
• 2 limes
• Steamed rice or sticky rice, or for a western variant use pita bread.
1. Mince the chicken by hand.
2. Chop up the lemongrass, chillies, lime leaves, ginger and garlic, then put them all into a processor until the mixture looks finely chopped. The amounts for the seasonings, especially the fish sauce, chilli and lime juice are recommended only, and you’ll need to taste them to see if the amounts are right for you. The taste you’re aiming for should be mostly sour but a bit salty. The degree of fieriness is completely down to you – and your guests, of course.
3. Prepare the vegetables that will accompany the larb and garnish with lime wedges.
4. Heat a frying pan or wok and add the vegetable oil and the sesame oil. Add the spice mixture and fry for a few seconds before adding the minced chicken and the chilli powder. Stir-fry the chicken and aim to keep as much moisture in the meat as possible. Don’t drain off the liquid, as larb isn’t supposed to be a dry dish. It’s no problem if the meat forms chunks while in the frying pan; you can simply separate with a spatula.
5. Now add the fish sauce. Reduce the heat a little and let the contents of the wok or pan simmer together for about four minutes. Keep stirring and then add the onion and cook for a final minute, adding the mint, basil and coriander leaves.
6. Put everything together and serve as soon as possible.