By Cheryl Forberg, RD
Like a curry in India, or a mole in Mexico, most Laotian families have their own spice combination for their country’s national dish, Larb. Quick and easy to prepare (and eat!) Larb is sometimes classified as a salad, because the spicy stir-fried meat mixture is usually served wrapped in lettuce leaves. Roughly ground toasted rice is also a very important component of the dish. Larb is seasoned with fish sauce for a blast of umami, plus a tang from fresh lime juice and topped with the freshness of chopped mint leaves. It’s served at room temperature, typically with additional raw vegetables and sometimes rice.
But Larb isn’t limited to Laos. In fact, many Indonesian countries have their own version (and name). In the Northern part of Thailand, the Isan region is where many transplanted Laotians and Hmong call home. But the Thai rendition has its own spin and a different name. Larb Lanna as it’s called, does not contain fish sauce or lime, but has a much more complex blend of spices, probably because it’s namesake, the Lanna region is part of the spice route to China. Cinnamon, cloves, cumin and star anise are often found in the Thai version of Larb.
In Viet Nam, another version of larb called Bo Tai Chanh, is like the Laotian version, except the meat is thinly sliced instead of minced. If Larb is prepared this way in Laos, it is called Saa.
Historically, there have been many versions of larb throughout Indonesia that have been prepared with raw meat or fish, but they are also responsible for numerous cases of food-borne infection and have fallen out of favor for that reason.
I’m sharing a simple version of traditional Laotian larb using pork. Feel free to make it your own by adding more (or less) hot sauce, mint or cilantro.
This classic Indonesian salad is great for lunch, dinner or served as an appetizer. Though ground pork is used in this recipe, you can also use ground (or finely chopped) chicken, turkey, beef, fish or shrimp. Just be sure to cook it well! Ready in minutes if you chop/assemble ahead of time.
4 to 6 servings
1-pound ground pork
1/2 cup roughly chopped shallots
1/4 cup roughly chopped cilantro
2 tablespoons thinly sliced lemongrass
2 kaffir lime leaves, thinly sliced
2 teaspoons fish sauce (nam pla)
1 teaspoon Sriracha sauce or a small minced Thai chili (optional)
1 teaspoon Melissa’s fresh lime juice
1 teaspoon Melissa’s chopped garlic
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
For cooking pork:
1 tablespoon grapeseed or canola oil
10 radicchio cups (or Small cabbage or lettuce leaves)
6 cups spinach, sliced crosswise, chiffonade
Chopped mint leaves
Fresh lime wedges
Place ground pork in medium size mixing bowl and set in refrigerator.
Add the next 10 ingredients to the bowl of a food processor and pulse until the mixture is finely chopped and uniform in size. Transfer to the bowl with the pork and stir well to combine thoroughly. At this point, the mixture can be made a day ahead and refrigerated, tightly covered.
In a large nonstick pan, heat the oil over medium high heat. Add pork and spice mixture. Cook, stirring regularly to break up any clumps, until the meat is no longer pink and cooked through, about 6 minutes.
Place radicchio cups on each plate. Fill halfway with shredded spinach. Top with pork mixture, dividing evenly. Garnish with cilantro (and mint if using). Pass Sriracha sauce and lime wedges. Eat with your hands.