If it hadn’t been for an in-the-know friend, larb might have stayed off my radar forever. Its name, to the untrained ear, offers little allure, and its typical description—minced meat with ground rice—continues, I have no doubt, to keep eaters in a pad Thai rut.
And this is a shame, because larb, the meat-based Thai salad, is so good: It’s loaded with fresh herbs (often cilantro and mint), invariably includes shallots and some sort of hot chili, and traditionally is seasoned with ground toasted rice, which not only imparts a nutty flavor but also binds and thickens the salad. Served with steamed rice and crisp romaine lettuce leaves, and dressed with an intensely flavored sauce, larb tastes refreshing, light, spicy, and satisfying.
Amazingly, making it at home is easy, with one caveat: You have to check your salad-making knowledge at the door. Don’t be tempted to enrich the dressing with oil, and don’t be afraid to over-dress the salad.
In Thai Food, David Thompson writes, “Most traditional Thai dressings have three tastes: hot, salty, and sour,” which typically contrast with the main ingredient. Here, the main ingredient is ground chicken, which in itself supplies the requisite richness to counter the sharp and pungent dressing—no additional fat needed. Moreover, because the role of many Thai salads is to flavor the accompanying rice, Thompson notes that “the correct amount [of dressing] does not just coat the ingredients, as in a Western salad, but liberally anoints.”
With this in mind, making larb amounts to tossing together cooked ground meat with herbs and shallots, and dressing them liberally with a sauce made from lime juice, fish sauce, and sugar. Adding toasted ground rice will make the flavors more traditional, but a larb can be well-balanced and tasty even without it.
- 1 pound ground chicken (I've been grinding thighs at home)
- 1/3 cup fresh lime juice, from about 2 limes
- 2 tablespoons + 2 teaspoons fish sauce
- 1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
- 1 cup thinly sliced scallions
- 3/4 cup thinly sliced shallots
- 1 tablespoon thinly sliced hot chili such as Thai bird, Serrano, or jalapeño or more to taste
- 1/2 cup roughly chopped cilantro
- 1/4 cup finely chopped mint
- Lettuce cups for serving: romaine, Little Gem, or Boston
- Steamed rice for serving
Sometimes, dressings really make a meal. (You could argue the same for larb.) What are your favorite dressings? Share a quick recipe and ideas for serving in the comments.