Why This Recipe Works
- Cooking the ground pork in a skillet with a little water and fish sauce until dry results in perfectly cooked, flavorful meat that's not excessively greasy.
- Fried shallots and pork rinds add a crunchy textural contrast as well as savoriness.
- Freshly toasting and grinding glutinous rice for topping the salad maximizes its characteristic popcorn-like aroma.
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 chiles, 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 chiles is of utmost importance here. I've seen recipes that call for simply using dried red chile flakes, but they lack the heat and flavor of Thai-style dried ground chile. 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 chiles or small hot Chinese chiles 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 sautéed 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 khua, or 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 chiles and pork rinds are an optional but welcome addition to top the salad with.
Pork Larb (Thai Salad with Pork, Herbs, Chile, and Toasted Rice Powder) Recipe
This Isan-style salad is seasoned with fish sauce, chiles, palm sugar, lime, and plenty of fresh herbs, then showered with crispy shallots and crushed pork rinds.
3/4 pound lean pork or chicken, trimmed of connective tissue and cut into 1-inch cubes
1/2 cup dry glutinous rice (see note)
1/2 cup thinly sliced shallots
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup fish sauce
2 scallions, thinly sliced
1/2 cup roughly chopped fresh basil leaves (preferably Thai)
1/2 cup roughly chopped fresh cilantro leaves and tender stems
1/4 cup roughly chopped fresh mint leaves
2 tablespoons ground dry Thai chiles (more or less to taste)
1/4 cup lime juice from about 4 limes
2 tablespoons palm sugar (see note)
Crumbled pork rinds (optional)
Thinly sliced fresh red chile (optional)
Place meat on a tray leaving a 1-inch space between each cube and place in freezer until firm but not frozen, about fifteen minutes. Transfer half of meat to bowl of food processor and pulse until meat is roughly ground and no pieces larger than 1/4-inch remain, about 10 one-second pulses. Transfer meat to a bowl. Repeat with remaining meat. Set aside.
While meat chills, place rice in an empty 12-inch skillet and heat over medium-high heat shaking constantly until rice is golden brown and a nutty popcorn-like aroma emerges, about 6 minutes. Transfer to mortar and pestle and grind until it has the texture of coarsely ground black pepper. Alternatively, grind in a spice grinder. Set aside.
Add oil and shallots to now-empty skillet and cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly until shallots are golden brown, about 5 minutes. Drain shallots and discard oil but do not wipe out pan.
Add pork, 1 tablespoon fish sauce, and 2 tablespoons water to pan. Cook, stirring frequently until pork is just cooked through but not browned at all, about 6 minutes. Transfer to a large bowl and allow to cool five minutes. Add remaining fish sauce, scallions, basil, cilantro, mint, half of chile, lime juice, sugar, and toasted rice powder. Toss with hands and taste for seasoning, adding more chile if higher heat is desired.
Just before serving, add fried shallots and toss again. Granish with pork rinds and chile. Serve immediately with cabbage or lettuce on the side.
Food processor; mortar and pestle or spice grinder
Glutinous rice (also known as sticky rice) can be found in most Asian grocers. It has opaque, pearly white grains, not the translucent grains of regular rice.
For best results, use ground dried Thai chiles and palm sugar, though red pepper flakes and regular sugar will do. Adjust the sweetness, heat, and acidity of the salad to fit your taste.
- Laab Moo Isan (Thai Isan-Style Minced Pork Salad) Recipe
- Larb Muang Moo (Northern Thai-Style Chopped Pork Salad) Recipe
- Shimeji Mushroom Laab Recipe
- Thai-Style Spicy Chicken, Banana Blossom, and Herb Salad (With Lots of Fried Things) Recipe
- Isan-Style Spicy Thai Fried Pork Rind and Herb Salad Recipe
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 39g||50%|
|Saturated Fat 6g||31%|
|Total Carbohydrate 20g||7%|
|Dietary Fiber 2g||7%|
|Total Sugars 9g|
|Vitamin C 12mg||59%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|