There is something about warm weather that makes me long for big, bold Asian flavours. And as is usually the case with a warm weather a renewed motivation to eat healthier, lighter and quicker meals with more vegetables. Having never really been one for token iceberg lettuce, tomato and cucumber type salads, I’m always struggling for ideas, but it’s crazy how a bit of lime or lemongrass and fresh herbs like coriander can turn a salad into a different thing altogether. My staples in the past included chargrilled beef salad and thai basil chicken stir fry (which isn’t really a salad, but I eat it so much that I thought I might as well include it).
Malaysians aren’t really known for their light or particularly healthy cooking, so I’ve always turned to Thailand for summer salad inspiration. I’d all but forgotten about larb until a friend did a cooking class recently and reminded me how quick, simple and delicious it is. Originating from Thailand’s northern provinces and/or Lao – a debate I best avoid – it’s a sort of Asian salad thrown together with mince, sliced onions, loads of fresh herbs and a generous squeeze of lime juice – all in a matter of minutes. It’s a 30 minute meal (not a Jamie Oliver 30 minutes either…) and you can eat it with cabbage, cucumber or in little lettuce cups like san choi bao if you feel like upping the vegetable content.
If you’ve never eaten leaves of chilled, crisp raw cabbage, now’s the time. It’s just coming into season and is super sweet and crunchy. The key is to wash and chill in cold water in the fridge while preparing the larb so that the cabbage maintains its optimal crunch levels. Thai people have been eating wedges of cabbage as a side to their street food forever, I don’t know why it took me so long to catch on.
Some notes on ingredients to make authentic Thai larb :
- The best larbs are made with coarsely ground meat, often chopped by hand – the resulting mince is often slightly uneven sized, adding texture and interest to the final dish. Pork is most common in Thailand, although chicken is a close second due to dietary requirements. For this dish, you do need a bit of fat, so if using chicken – use the chicken thigh, not breast.
- Asian grocers will often sell pre-packaged coarsely ground pork mince – I worry that it is sometimes not properly chilled in transit (sometimes it is transported from Sydney to Canberra) or sometimes it’s been frozen and then defrosted again. I tend to use supermarket mince purely for food safety reasons.
- The best larbs are very gently cooked and almost slightly pink (some larb is made with raw meat), but food safety comes first. Minced meat has a greater surface area than steak and therefore presents a greater risk of bacterial contamination. The risk is fairly minimal in developed countries – but just be careful to cook the meat through.
- As with all food, Thai dishes especially rely on your ability to taste and balance flavours to your preference. The saltiness of fish sauces, the amount of juice you get from one lime, your chilli tolerance and your preferred level of sweetness are all things that make an exact recipe impossible. Taste and balance after tossing all the ingredients together, remembering to make everything just a little over the top – a bit more spicy, salty and tangy than you’re used to if serving with rice as mixing with rice will mute the big flavours.
- If you can’t be bothered to make your own, ground roasted glutinous rice can sometimes be sourced from Asian groceries. Freshly toasted does have the edge in flavour though.
- Sawtooth coriander is an important flavour in this dish but don’t stress if you can’t get your hands on it at the Asian grocer. Regular coriander, mint and spring onion is plenty.
- I love limes and their flavour is integral to this dish, but they are so hideously expensive that I often substitute half lime, half lemon juice. As long as it’s freshly squeezed, it’ll be ok. It’s not the best nor the most authentic but it will do, especially when the limes can cost more than the meat itself.
- When I can get lime juice I freeze it in ice trays until solid, then empty into ziploc bags for use in salad dressings or cocktails (This brand is the only one I use that tastes close to fresh – do not substitute the supermarket long life lime juice that comes in the plastic green thing – it tastes all kinds of yuck)
- If serving with cabbage, use the freshest cabbage you can get because it’s eaten completely raw – old cabbage pulled out from the back of the veggie drawer doesn’t really work in this context.
- 100 gm glutinous rice
- 5 slices galangal
- 1 lemongrass stalk, thinly sliced
- 2 tbsp canola or other neutral oil
- 400 gm minced pork
- 60ml (¼ cup) chicken stock
- 1 small red chilli, finely diced, plus extra to serve
- ½ red/pink onion, thinly sliced
- 2 spring onions, thinly sliced
- ¼ cup coriander leaves and chopped stalks, plus extra to serve
- ¼ cup mint, roughly chopped, plus extra to serve
- ¼ cup 1cm-sliced sawtooth coriander (if you can get it from an Asian grocer)
- 1 tbsp fish sauce
- ½ tbsp palm sugar (substitute brown or white sugar)
- 60ml (¼ cup) lime juice -approx 2-3 limes, plus extra wedges, to serve
- wedges of white cabbage/cos lettuce, sliced cucumbers, red chilli and white or sticky rice
- Dry roast glutinous rice, galangal and lemongrass in a frying pan, constantly stirring over low heat until evenly pale golden in colour and fragrant. (You can also do this in an oven on 150C). Pound in a mortar and pestle, or blender and grind. This recipe makes more than you need but I store the rest in an airtight container for a few weeks - it's best used while still fragrant.
- Slice wedges of white cabbage (cut through to the base stem so that the leaves stay together as much as possible), wash and place in cold water. Put the bowl in the fridge to maximise crispness while you prepare the other ingredients.
- Heat a wok over medium heat until smoking then add oil. Cook the minced pork for 2-3 minutes, then add stock and allow the meat to cook through.
- Transfer meat to a large bowl, and while still warm add 1 tbsp of the ground glutinous rice mixture.
- Prepare all the aromatics - cut the red chilli, onion, spring onion, coriander leaves, mint, sawtooth coriander (if using) and place on top of the cooked pork mince.
- Combine the fish sauce, palm sugar and lime juice, then toss over the meat and herb mix until the ingredients are distributed evenly.
- Taste and adjust seasoning as required; it should taste sour, slightly spicy (add more crushed red chilli if required) and salty. Remember to make everything just a little over the top - a bit more spicy, salty and tangy than you're used to if serving with rice as mixing with rice will mute the big flavours.
- Serve with cabbage, cucumber, extra herbs, lime wedges and rice.