Whether you choose to spell it larp, larb or laab, done right, this greatest of Thailand's salads can be a real show-stopper. The word "salad" doesn't really do it justice, though. Sure, it's served with raw vegetables and includes soft green herbs, but few Thais would eat a larb on its own as a Westerner eats salad - it's just too spicy. It typically comes with rice or sticky rice, and a side of lettuce and long beans - perfect to temper the chilli and make for a complete meal.
For Thais, meat was special and never an everyday food. Perhaps this explains the name: "larb" in Thai means "good luck and prosperity". The word now also describes a method of cooking - always with minced meat (often offal), seafood or fungi.
Whether it's served raw, poached, stir-fried, sour, not sour, with fresh herbs or dry all depends on where you are and whose house you're in. They all have the use of roasted dry chilli in common.
The thighs have it
Chicken is popular in larbs possibly because in the West it's the most popular protein. Don't use breast; it's too dry and grainy, and has little character. Instead choose thighs - there's no other source of fat or oil in this dish and thigh meat is the only part of the bird that has enough fat to give it the mouthfeel it needs. In Thailand the preferred chicken is gai baan: birds reared in the yard that have foraged naturally and aged a little to develop a bit of muscle and grit. They have a fair bit of chew to them, so mincing the meat makes perfect sense. My preference is skin on, with the offal and all. Get out your chopping board and largest cleaver - they're going to get a work-out.
The pieces of meat should be, for my preference, the size of sunflower seeds and fairly evenly sized, but not perfectly the same - the best larbs have texture.
Rice is nice, toasted rice is nicer
The trickiest part is toasting the glutinous rice - tricky because you have to watch it like a hawk. It's not something you can save if it burns. Use only glutinous rice. Properly toasted, it magically absorbs any liquid it hits, and thickens much better than long-grain rice. (It comes down to a starch present in glutinous rice called amylopectin, as opposed to the two types of starch commonly found in all other rice grains, amylopectin and amylose, which break the grain down when it absorbs too much fluid.)
Chop lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves and galangal to toast with the rice. It's all about the aroma - it's insanely fragrant, earthy and herby. You can buy ready-ground glutinous rice from Thai grocers for a faster larb, but the fragrance and flavour you get from making your own is huge.
Keep moving the grains in the wok until they're evenly golden but still white on the inside. Don't worry if you end up with a few blackened grains; it's bound to happen, even to the best of us. Then turn the heat off and leave the grains to cool completely.
Grind the grains with a grain mill, coffee grinder or mortar and pestle. The consistency should be that of a coarse powder, like large grains of sand, with a colour a bit like white pepper. Make lots: it keeps and you can use it to thicken broths, as we do with our northern-style spicy soups.
The spice factor
The spice component of this larb comes from the toasted dried red chillies. At a Thai grocery store you'll most likely find only two sizes of dried chillies; go for the smaller ones, which are spicier. We use a brand called O'Cha that's reliably fresh and not roasted too dark. Before you grind the chilli, toast it in a wok to freshen it up and intensify the oils. Do this over really low heat and have your extractor fan on; you don't want to breathe in the fumes - that aroma is not conducive to comfort. Keep agitating the pan so the chilli toasts evenly.
And a little sweetness
Then there's the sweetness. For larb you can deploy caster sugar to impart a clean sweetness, but I like the character that palm sugar brings. For this recipe half a tablespoon is sufficient to round out the sourness and saltiness while helping to trick the tongue into going along with the onslaught of spice from the roasted chilli. At all our restaurants we use a brand called Ban Dtahn Buk - it's malleable, fresh and it isn't cloyingly sweet or grainy.
Use only the freshest lime juice from whole fruit. It deteriorates much faster than lemon; even an hour makes a difference. You can either mix your seasonings into a dressing before you start, or add them straight to the pan. If you're mixing it first, do it just before you start cooking to preserve the freshness of the lime, and use a room-temperature bowl - even a slightly warm bowl will change the flavour of the lime.
First add the fish sauce and softened palm sugar, then work the palm sugar into the fish sauce with a metal spoon until it's completely dissolved, then incorporate the lime juice. Set it aside on a cool bench. Last of all, the onions. At our grocery we've sourced a Thai variety of shallot that's pale purple and extremely flavourful, without the acrid sharpness of red onions. Any onion is fine, though, as long as it is sliced as finely as you can manage.
The vegetable accompaniment should take up a quarter of the plate. Cut cabbage or lettuce into wedges, cut green beans or wing beans and cucumber into batons, and wash, drain and chill them ready to plate up.
Once you've prepped all the ingredients the rest is straightforward. Start the final push only when you're ready to sit down and eat. Larb really needs to be eaten as soon as it's made. And with gusto.
15 mins preparation| 12 mins cooking