Ever ready to put fork or chop stick to the spiciest, strangest foods most people consider yucky, Sophia Padnos is a food adventurer. When I need someone to join me in Lowell for unpronounceable authentic Cambodian food, Sophia, who has eaten pig colon in Queens, not only agrees to come, but jumps for joy.
In last week’s heat, as Sophia and I planned our Cambodian trip, conversation strayed from Lowell to what to make for dinner that night. Our minds still in Southeast Asia, Sophia called out, “Larb!”
Boy, was she ever right. Larb, the national dish of Laos, is food for steamy nights. Ground meat – (I used ground turkey, but pork, beef, chicken, duck and fish are all acceptable in Laos) – is dressed with a lime, sugar and fish sauce. Fundamental to Larb is toasting a handful of rice, grinding it in a mortar and pestle or food processor, and tossing the toasted, crunchy bits into the meat. This adds texture and taste that make the whole dish more mysterious than mere sauteed ground turkey and fish sauce. Add the toasted rice just before serving so it doesn’t become a mushy toasted taste.
Serve the seasoned meat over jasmine or sticky rice strewn with fresh herbs – cilantro, mint, basil – any combination of those or all three. Cool leaves of bib lettuce and cucumbers hedge the platter, doubling as beauty and utensils. Scoop rice and seasoned meat into the lettuce leaves, pour some mint tea, and turn your fan to high.
I served my larb beside a bowl of sliced mango and basil, how to keep dinner inspired in weather meant for gazing at the Mekong.
Here’s a bit of sad history culled from a quick scan of Wikipedia: The North Vietnamese apparently used the country of Laos as a covert route to South Vietnam; the U.S. thus bombed the country to smithereens.
“It has been reported that Laos was hit by an average of one B-52 bomb load every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, between 1964 and 1973. Of the 260 million bombs that rained down, particularly on Xiangkhouang Province and the Plain of Jars some 80 million failed to explode, leaving a deadly legacy…Laos is the most heavily bombed country, per capita, in the world.”
2 pounds ground turkey or pork
1 tablespoon rapeseed oil or olive oil
2 tablespoons sugar
2/3 cup fresh lime juice
1/2 cup fish sauce
2-3 Thai bird chilis or Pequin chilis loosely chopped (or red pepper flakes)
2 cups jasmine rice + 1/2 cup for toasting
1/2 medium red onion, halved and then thinly sliced into crescents
1 small head Bibb lettuce, washed, dried, and separated into leaves
1 small cucumber, peeled and sliced into crescents
1/2 cup each chopped cilantro, basil, and mint (or any combination of these)
chopped scallions or chives (optional)
Prepare the 2 cups rice according to the directions.
Heat a large saute pan to medium high. Add oil, and heat. Gently break apart meat into the heated pan to cover the bottom leaving spaces around. If the pan is not large enough to leave space between the chunks do this in two batches. If there is too much meat in the pan it will steam rather than brown.
Allow the meat to get brown and crumbly, about five minutes. Turn meat gently, allowing it to crumble, and brown on the other side. Cook for another two minutes, and remove meat to a bowl while you cook the second batch.
Heat a small saute pan to medium high. Add the 1/2 cup of rice, and cook until each grain is toasted light brown. Remove the rice from the heat. Once cool, put the rice in a food processor (a small one works best, but a large one will do.) and whirr to grind to tiny chunks.
To make the dressing, stir together sugar, lime juice, fish sauce and chilis in a small bowl. Stir to dissolve the sugar.
Make a bed of rice in the center of a medium-sized platter. Drizzle a bit of the dressing all over the rice.
Toss the remaining dressing over the meat and mix well. Add the toasted rice, and mix in well. Lay meat over the bed of rice. Strew the chopped onions over the meat.
Tuck the Bibb lettuce all around the edges of the rice. Sprinkle the cucumbers over the lettuce. Toss the chopped herbs over all. Add scallions or chives if desired.