Interchangeable ingredients, crunchy counterpoints: an orchestra of flavors that can lead to overeating!
If you have never tried Thai larb, you really have to. It’s not really too hard to make and the ingredients are so interchangeable. And of course the flavors are distinctly Thai—a little sweet, a little sour, a little spicy and a little salty. Which is everything you need to lead to overeating! Thankfully, the dish itself is quite healthy with the amount of green herbs in it that you can justify the overeating.
The Thai Orchestra
I first got to know about larb when I lived in Hawaii and a group of Thai students arrived at my International dorm to stay for one semester. They cooked Thai food everyday and they were so generous in sharing all they made. I never ate as much Thai food as I did that one semester. As a matter of fact, I ate so much Thai salads and other dishes that I ended up developing a sore in my mouth from all the lemon juice they used in their cooking! The pain was totally worth it!
Whenever I make this dish now, I always think of my Thai friends fondly. They showed me that Thai food was an orchestra of different yet complementary flavors that would make beautiful melody in your mouth. You’d think they would be complicated but most of their recipes were simple and a matter of taste—a little bit of this and then that, taste, and add more to get the right balance. And here’s the wonderful thing about larb—it invites improvisation.
That semester, my friends made larb numerous times using ground pork, ground chicken, fish paste, and even cut up hotdogs. The herbs and vegetables that went in it also depended on what was available—cilantro, mint, Thai basil, sawtooth leaf, green onions, tomatoes, red chillies, and shallots. Use all or some of them as you wish or have on hand, with the only one that I find most necessary being the shallots.
As a final touch, add a dusting of roasted rice powder for that nice crunchy mouth feel. I didn’t know where to buy roasted rice powder here in Kuching. In San Jose, I would normally just pick up a pack from the Asian grocery store. But it’s really easy to make it yourself. All you need is some raw rice that you roast in a dry, hot wok until the rice is nicely browned. Cool it down and then grind it with a spice grinder or in a mortar and pestle until you have fine granules of rice. Any extras can be kept for the next time you need it.
Once assembled, you just need a host of raw vegetables to act as the conduit for the larb. These vegetables are the counterpoint for larb’s yumminess. Usually, I like to use sliced cucumbers or iceberg lettuce cups to hold my larb as their refreshing crunch goes perfectly with the full-flavored larb. Other good options include green cabbage, French endive and bell peppers.
Thai Larb Recipe
1 lb ground pork (or ground chicken, fish paste, or sliced hotdogs)
1 Tbsp vegetable oil (or you could even get away with just using a little water)
1 Tbsp fish sauce (we like the Three Crabs brand)
4-5 shallots, sliced thin
2 Tbsp roasted rice powder
Use a combination of 3 or 4 of the following herbs (or all if you so desire, just adjust amount if using all):
1/2 cup Thai basil, sliced
1/2 cup cilantro, sliced
1/3 cup green onions, sliced
1/3 cup sawtooth leaf herb, sliced
1/2 cup mint leaves, sliced
1/3 cup cherry tomatoes, quartered (about 8-10 cherry tomatoes)
1-2 (or more) Thai bird’s eye chillies, sliced thin (or black pepper if you can’t take the heat of the chillies)
For the sauce:
Juice from one lemon
2-3 Tbsp fish sauce
2-3 Tbsp sugar (or Thai palm sugar, or a sugar substitute which is what I use)
1. Heat up wok over medium heat and add vegetable oil (or water). Add ground pork and 1 Tbsp fish sauce and stir around till it is broken up and cooked through. Remove and cool.
2. Chop up your herbs and shallots. Add them to the cooked pork.
3. Add sauce ingredients. Taste and adjust seasonings. The larb should have a balance of salty, sour, sweet and spicy. Adjust to your own liking. Some prefer it sweeter, others more sour or salty.
4. Finish by mixing in the roasted rice powder.
5. Serve along with raw vegetables like sliced cucumber, iceberg lettuce, green cabbage, French endives, and/or bell peppers.