Larb is a spicy minced meat salad, usually of pork, chicken, beef, or duck (or pig's ears, if you're Chichi). It's served either warm or at room temperature, and either with rice or wrapped in crisp refreshing lettuce leafs.
My first introduction to this type of dish years ago was a chicken lettuce wrap appetizer at a P.F. Chang's bistro. This version, with mushrooms and water chestnuts, didn't exactly blow my mind. It wasn't until I sampled larb at a few Thai food joints in Boston and in Southeast Asia that I really got addicted to this flavor packed dish: chili hot, tangy from the lime juice, and with a good shot of salty, briny fish sauce. On top of that, it's loaded with shallots, garlic, and handfuls of mint and cilantro leaves, and the hallmark authentic sprinkling of nutty ground toasted rice. How can you go wrong with that?
Two of the best things about this dish is that it's served family-style, and it's so quick to pull together. Thai larb is a terrific weeknight meal. The sides of lettuce and rice are super simple to get together, especially if you pop the rice into a rice cooker. And because larb doesn't need to be served piping hot, there's no rush to have everyone seated at the table the moment you pull the pan from the stove.
I have easy access to ground chicken and it does make for a super fast preparation (admittedly, I use it frequently). I prefer the texture and the quality you get from grinding your own meat (at the very least, you've got more control over the fat and sinew that goes in the dish). A food processor gets the job done quick.
I've always been skeptical about the ground rice ingredient: is it really necessary? In a word, yes. After adding the lime juice, fish sauce, and shallots to the already moist chicken, there's a modest amount of liquid in the bottom of the pan. The ground rice acts as a binder to add a bit of body to the liquid, and help pull it all together. And the nuttiness of the rice, though subtle, adds a layer of complexity to the overall flavor. On a hot summer night, the combination of sweat inducing chili-hot meat with refreshing lettuce totally hits the spot.