Photo by Jarrett Wrisley
Bangkok knows no spring. As late April flowers bloom in America, this city whimpers under the fiercest heat of the year. The mercury peaks in April and May, and during this time the city's beloved street food can become a chore to eat. Soup noodles when it's ninety-nine degrees? Are you mad? (The answer, by the way, is, Yes, most people are mad.)
Thankfully, there are a few dishes that refresh (especially when taken away and eaten under the air-conditioner). Particularly this meaty salad, which neatly captures the freshness of my imaginary springtime, and your actual one. Another plus: it's very easy to make.
This dish comes from the hottest, driest slice of Thailand. It's spelled larb, or lab, or even laap (as in, "to lop off"), and a weak-sauce version is probably served at your neighborhood Thai restaurant. Unlike most curry recipes, which will probably send you scurrying to your local Asian market and returning home disappointed, the ingredients for this dish are easy to find. And because Northeastern Thai food is a humble, country cuisine, the cooking is quick and simple. The final product might taste exotic, but cooking it surely is not.
I've had a lot of wimpy larb, and some that are deeply, soulfully superb. The key to all this is balance. But not that streamlined, Japanese kind of balance, where an extra whisper or pinch might throw things akimbo. No, I mean a balance achieved by outsized flavors that smack into and bounce off of each other, without ever knocking the other ones out. Think professional wrestlers in the ring (this American import seems very popular in Thailand, by the way).
That's larb at its best: citrusy, spicy, nutty, oniony, garlicky, minty, and porky all at once, and at high volume. Serve it as you would a salad, or as a main course with rice and other vegetarian sides. Roll it up in cabbage or iceberg lettuce and serve with slices of baby cucumbers. Or do like I do at my local street stall and pull up a plastic stool, order a cold beer, and sop it up with balls of sticky rice. You might not even break a sweat. Lucky.
(The best larb I've yet found in Bangkok is on Suanplu, Soi 3, just opposite the police station. Look for the decrepit grill, the crowded metal tables, and you've found it. This recipe is the result of watching the cooks there, trying it myself, and studying David Thompson's excellent Thai Food. On the street, it is generally served not only with meat but also bits offal such as liver and tripe, and an undressed tangle of pungent herbs.)
Pork or chicken larb (Thai meat salad)
• 5 ounces lean pork or chicken, hand-minced. (This is an important step, and takes about two minutes with a sharp knife. Chop until meat is very fine and resembles ground chicken or pork. The texture will be much better than machine ground meat. Trust me--it's a big difference.) • ¼ cup chicken stock
• 3 shallots, chopped fine • 1 clove of garlic, minced
• A large handful of fresh mint, coriander and spring onions, in roughly equal parts, chopped • 1 Kaffir lime leaf, rolled up and then sliced into tiny slivers (optional)
• 2 tbs lime juice (more, if you like it sour) • 1.5-2 tbs good fish sauce
• ½ tsp roasted chili powder. (This should be fresh, and very hot. If, like my mother, you bought your chili during The Cosby Show era, buy some more.)
• 1 tbsp roasted rice, ground (heat some dry, long grain rice in a pan, until brown, like you were toasting spices, and then grind in a spice grinder or in a mortar. Make some extra, it keeps well.)
Heat stock and garlic in a small pan and season with some salt and sugar.
Add minced meat and cook quickly, stirring, until the meat is fluffy and cooked through--about 3-5 minutes is all you'll need.
Remove from heat and add lime juice, fish sauce, chili flakes, and taste. There should be a sweet, salty, spicy and sour balance. If not, adjust.
Toss with fresh herbs, shallots and ground rice and serve immediately.