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This ain't your grandma's pork larb. Unless your grandma happens to be of Lanna descent and native to Northern Thailand, in which case, this is probably very much like your grandma's pork larb.
By this late stage in the game, everybody knows what Isan-style larb is, right? It's the Northeastern Thai salad made with minced meat, flavored with dried chilies, fish sauce, palm sugar, herbs, and lime juice, widely available at every Isan Thai restaurant in the country. We've published multiple recipes for it, like this duck larb from Harold Dieterle at Kin Shop, or this Easy Chicken Larb chopped up in a food processor. I've posted my own take on pork larb, made with a mix of dried and fresh chilies, fried shallots, and pork cracklings.
Lanna Thai larb, which I first tasted during a cooking lesson in Chiang Mai with a man named Arm, the sole proprietor, instructor, and cook at Small House Thai Cooking, is similar to Isan larb in that it starts with minced meat, but from there, it diverges wildly. Gone is the hot-sour-sweet balance you find in Isan-style larb. Instead, you find a much darker mince, with tender bits of lean pork mixed together with chunks of fat, chewy bits of intestine, and a rich, thick sauce flavored with crushed spices and pork blood. It's not larb for the faint of heart, but it's one worth seeking out or cooking at home if you've got any interest in offal.
Larb Muang Moo gets its flavor from a heady mix of dried spices that flavor many Northern Thai specialties. The particular blend used for this dish varies from recipe to recipe, but it's remarkably similar to Chinese five-spice, with a few extras thrown in. Dried chili, coriander, cloves, star anise, cinnamon, cardamom, and black pepper are all familiar to you. The only outliers here are long pepper—a particularly sweet-hot member of the pepper family—and zanthoxylum limonella, a Thai variety of prickly ash closely related to Chinese Sichuan Peppercorns, with a slightly milder mouth-numbing effect.
There's no great substitute for long pepper, but you can order it on Amazon or simply omit it if you prefer. Similarly, I haven't found a single good source for Thai prickly ash, but substituting a smaller quantity of Sichuan peppercorns in its place does the trick.
The key to great spice flavor here is to toast the spices slowly in a dry skillet, allowing their flavors to bloom and develop before grinding them into a fine paste in a mortar and pestle.
The other main flavoring element is fried garlic, and I've found that if you can get your hand on very small, fresh heads of garlic, you can actually cook the garlic cloves with the skins and all and end up with something that's crisp and delicious. It's simple to do: just place the whole garlic cloves in the bottom of a mortar and pestle, pound them until well-smashed with the skins and all (feel free to peel first if you can't find thin-skinned garlic), then fry them briefly in oil over moderate heat in a wok, stirring the whole time. As soon as they're golden brown, take them out of the wok with a slotted spoon to drain. You'll end up with enough crisp garlic to work as a garnish, along with some garlic-flavored oil to stir-fry your meat.
Now comes what may be the rough part for some: the offal. We used equal parts of minced lean pork, pork liver, pork kidneys, and pork intestines in our mix, along with a good-sized chunk of congealed blood that we chopped up by hand. This could pose a problem to you in two ways: a) you don't much dig on offal or b) you like offal, but you can't find it.
Either case can be answered with a simple solution: just skip the offal and the blood. The four readers out there who have Northern Thai grandmother's might be screaming bloody murder at this point but honestly, even with straight-up minced meat, the spices do enough of the heavy lifting to make this a dish worth tasting.
I've tried a variety of ways to chop up the meat: minced from the supermarket, roughly chopped in a food processor, and chopped by hand. Minced meat is the easiest and does just fine, but it won't give you the great variance in texture that the food processor or hand chopping does. I prefer to put in the elbow grease and chop by hand. If you do choose to use the food processor, your best bet is to cut the meat into chunks by hand, then partially freeze them before processing them. This will give your blades a fighting chance at actually chopping as opposed to mashing or smearing.
Into the hot garlic oil the meat goes. It takes just a minute or two to stir-fry (overcooking it will lead to rubbery meat, especially if you are including offal). As soon as the meat is cooked through, the spices go and get stir-fried just until aromatic, along with some fresh cilantro.
Things happen fast now. If you can manage to get your hands on some fresh pork blood, now would be the time to add it. It should thicken up and bind your meat into a loose, almost Bolognese-like texture as it simmers.
Final step: season your larb to taste with fish sauce and salt. Chances are, if you're willing to try this recipe, you're probably also the kind of person who likes the funky flavor of fish sauce. I go heavy on mine.
You'll probably notice that there's absolutely no sweet or acidic element in this dish to temper the heat of the chilies or brighten up the richness of pork and pork blood. This is intentional. This is meant to be a dark, intense dish that smacks you over the head with its bitterness and complex aroma. A nice acid-forward salad like this pomelo and shrimp salad or this Northeastern-style mushroom larb would balance out the table nicely.
Here was the bit of bad news for me: I was recently diagnosed with hereditary hemachromatosis—my body has trouble processing iron—which means that tiny bites of this stuff is all I can safely consume. In a way this is good, because if I hadn't known, I'd've been stuffing my face with so much of it that I might have missed out on a lot of the other fantastic Northern Thai foods I came across in Chiang Mai. As it is, I'll just have to dream of it, staring wistfully at that plate of aromatic pork innards as it quietly calls to me.
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