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Pork Larb (Thai Salad with Pork, Herbs, Chili, and Toasted Rice Powder
There are as many recipes for larb, the meat-based sour and spicy salads of Laos, as there are Laotian or Thai cooks in the world, but they all share a few elements in common. Most of us know the dish in its Thai incarnation. It came to Thailand via Isan, the Northeastern section of the country that borders Laos, but these days it can be found everywhere, including just about every Thai restaurant in the U.S., and even large chains where it gets reincarnated in a milder form often served in lettuce cups.
The most hardcore traditional versions of the dish are intensely flavored, and the embodiment of the sweet-sour-salty-hot flavor profile that defines much of Thai cuisine. Pungent and salty with fish sauce, tart with lime juice, lightly sweetened with palm sugar (or heavily sweetened if you're eating it in Bangkok or a New York Thai restaurant), and hot-but-not-mind-blowingly-hot with dried chilies, it's a salad that's as much about its aromatics as it is about its main ingredients.
Herbs always play a major role, and I like to use a mix of basil, mint, and cilantro, though you can use any combination you feel like. Scallions and sliced shallots (or red onions) round out the fresh aromatics.
Not all versions use fried shallots, but I love the sweet, nutty complexity they add to the dish, and if you happen to make an extra-large batch and have leftovers, they go with just about anything (or, if you're like my wife, just eat by the surreptitious handful straight from the jar).
The quality of the dried chilis is of utmost importance here. I've seen recipes that call for simply using dried red chili flakes, but they lack the dusky, smoky, and sweet-hot flavor of Thai-style dried ground chili. Luckily, it's carried at most Asian markets, and on Amazon. Worst comes to worst, your best bet is to get whole dried Thai bird chilies or small hot Chinese chilies and grind them yourself in a spice grinder.
My method for cooking the meat in this dish has evolved over the years. For a long time I sauteed it in a skillet with a bit of fat, but it always left my salad greasy. Then I switched to poaching it in a pot of water on the stove, draining it before dressing it, but you end up washing away some flavor. I've finally settled on a method that I think combines the best of both worlds: in a skillet, with just enough water to loosen it, along with a splash of fish sauce. The water and fish sauce evaporate as the meat slowly steams through, so you end up with meat that is just barely cooked (not overcooked into dry rubbery nubbins), with an intensely meaty, pungent flavor.
If there's one element that almost always gets overlooked in a good larb, it's khao koor, toasted glutinous rice powder, and in my book, it's as important to the flavor profile of the salad as the meat itself. You can buy it pre-made and powdered, but I prefer to toast whole grains of glutinous rice in a skillet until they develop a deep brown color and a distinct, popcorn-like aroma. After that I grind it up in a mortar and pestle (or spice grinder), and apply liberally. Its toasty, nutty aroma is essential to great larb.
Finally, a scattering of fresh chilis and pork rinds are an optional but welcome addition to top the salad with.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.