In Search of the Perfect Laab in Laos

Dear Friends,

Laab (also written ‘larb’) is a dish originating in Laos that has become a staple of menus across Thailand.  Its name means “luck” and this dish is a frequent star at the table during festivals and special occasions. It also makes the perfect gift for guests, conveying your good wishes along with some fresh sustenance all on one plate.

Some Laab Ingredients: Mint, cilantro, shallots

To me and my family, laab is a perennial favorite. Loving simple, speedy Southeast Asian cuisine, I became enamored of Thai dishes long ago.  My children, at very young ages, when asked their favorite foods, would cite “pizza, peanut butter and laab,” raising quizzical eyebrows on inquiring adults.  To this day, turning to the laab page in my Thai recipe book, the tell-tale scribbles of my two-year-old daughter (who is now 14) attest to this dish’s place in my family history.

So finding myself in Laos recently in the company of my colleague, Chris Roper, who shares my culinary interests, we decided to go on a pilgrimage to find the best laab. In Luang Prabang, we settled into the lovely Bamboo Garden restaurant, by the fountain, and ordered Laab Gai, the chicken version.  It arrived with a garnish of cucumber and cabbage, and young, delicate sprigs of cilantro and mint. The usual seasonings of fish sauce (usually squid) and lime juice were subtle, with scallions and cilantro dominating, textured by the barely perceptible crunch of roasted rice powder.  The spice was very tame, and Chris and I felt a little disappointed.  Very good, but this laab had not reached full potential.

A monk in Luang Prabang prepares a spicy green papaya salad

We moved on to a place recommended to us by our Lao guide, Mr. Kamh. He claimed it was the best laab in town.  Skeptically, we claimed a two-top at “Pizza Luang Prabang.”  A two-tiered terrace of exterior tables camouflaged an unattractive interior, where plastic-covered tables, a linoleum floor and kitschy decorations made me question our choice.  Two Italian men chattered away next to us, enjoying a smoke after their LP Pizza.  We ordered our laab—beef this time–and some Lao coffee.

When the waiter placed the dish on the table, we leaned in to inspect it.  Interesting: this time we saw unexpected ingredients.  Baby bean sprouts and thinly sliced lemon grass added texture and citrus to the overall freshness of this lucky Lao salad.  The rice powder was also more prevalent, adding a nutty undertone that was very pleasing. Again the lime and fish sauce were subtle, almost after-thoughts.   And there was another ingredient that was hard to identify, a barely discernible vegetable.  Again the spice level was low, and for us, spice addicts, a bit disappointing. Nonetheless, we agreed this laab won over the Bamboo Garden’s.

Our third laab tasting was compliments of Mr. Tie (pronounced “tee”), our chef on the Mekong Sun, a lovely little ship that travels from Luang Prabang to the Golden Triangle. Mr. Tie is a baby-faced 26-year-old who has been cooking since he was a teen.  He clearly loves his craft and puts his heart into every dish. He provided a full cooking demonstration for all the passengers, revealing a few aspects of preparation that were new to me.  For example, he added fish sauce as seasoning to the chicken before cooking it in the pan.  He not only added fried shallots but also fresh ones. He taught us how to roast our own rice: with lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves—in a dry pan.  Then the browned rice is transferred to a mortar and pounded into a powder (I buy small packets of rice powder at home, saving at least 30 minutes!). Then he revealed the secret ingredient I could not identify in Luang Prabang: raw yard-long beans, sliced into tiny rounds.  This addition adds a whole new, greener dimension to laab.

Mr. Tie's ingredients are laid out for laab gai preparation

Mr. Tie’s laab was very similar to Luang Prabang Pizza’s—excellent in its freshness and crunch.  Again, I would add more lime juice and chili powder, but this is a personal preference.

My time is Laos is a gift I am not soon to forget, and laab is one lucky way I can continue to keep a little piece of Laos in my life and in my heart.  For all those who dream of going to Laos, I present you with a recipe that I hope will bring you the good fortune of one day seeing this magnificent country.

Larb Nua (Beef Larb)

1 lb beef, minced or ground

2 cloves of garlic, chopped

1-3 red chili(s), chopped (spice level according to taste, of course)

1 tbsp chopped shallots

2 tbsp Thai basil, chopped (can replace with coriander, if you prefer)

2 tbsp mint, chopped

1 tbsp roasted rice powder

1 tbsp spring onion, chopped

1-2 tbsp of Nuoc Mam or fish sauce, to taste

Juice of 2-3 limes (taste and see if you like it with more citrus!)

2 hothouse cucumbers, sliced lengthwise and seeded, cut into 6 inch “boats” OR iceberg lettuce leaves

Hot peppers dry in a village along the Upper Mekong

Variations Seen in Laos:

–         Add fresh bean sprouts

–         Add chopped yard-long green beans

–         Add chopped lemon grass

Fry the beef in a wok or large frying pan, without oil, until browned and cooked through. Leave to cool.

Lightly brown the garlic, chili and shallot in a pan over medium heat, again without oil. Pound them together then mix this paste with the meat.  Stir in the fish sauce, lime juice, rice powder. Toss in the Thai basil, mint and scallions and stir. Serve at room temperature.

Prepare the cucumber “boats” and/or separate the iceberg lettuce leaves and place in dish for serving.  Laab is then spooned into the cucumber boats (my children’s favorite!) or wrapped in the lettuce leaves.

Sóen Sâep!

Wishing you Luck and Happiness with a fresh plate of laab gai!

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