Wednesday, 20 February 2008

Birthday cook-up round up 4: Laab

Photo courtesy of Lea at Aloha Malaho

One great thing for the foodie working for a big advertising agency with offices around the world is the yummy treats that folk from those offices bring when visiting head office (us!). Being firmly in the saffron side of the culinary world, choccies, nougat, stuffed dates and the nutty things from Dubai and parts around there are especially welcome (g).

But over the years, I've discovered other favourites: Champagne chocolates from Germany, dried fruit from Malaysia and Indonesia, and especially the Chinese and Thai-produced versions of Japanese confectioner Glico's "Pretz" biscuit stick snacks.

And especially, especially the larb version from Thailand. The box says "Thai-style spicy salad" with a picture of a chili and a dish that looks more like mince than a salad.

Here's a picture nicked from an interesting-looking blog in an unknown (Northern European?) language.

The Pretz themselves have a lot going on. They are sort of fishy and chili-y and sourish at the same time: totally addictive. We don't have anything snacky as hot in Japan (except maybe Tyrant Habanero and its sibling snacks, which taste okay, but are built on one of those dodgy unidentifiable chip bases (like Pringles) that are not actually a chip).

So back to the birthday. I was flipping through the current Donna Hay magazine looking for some menu inspiration, and what should I come across but a recipe for larb (or laab, I think it was spelled). Next thing, I'm thinking, well if the replica in biscuit form is that good, how much better must the real thing be??! And wouldn't that be something to surprise my guests with, particularly when one of them is practically an honourary citizen of Thailand, having visited there so often.

Anyway, I wanted an authentic version for my first attempt, hence this recipe from ThaiTable, rather than Donna Hay's.

I did a few things differently (of course (g)). One thing is the shallot, which in the recipe appears to go in raw. But when I tried it raw, it tasted a little hmmmmm-ish to me, and had a grainy and slightly slimy but dry texture (a bit like roll-on deodorant on the tongue!), so it got cooked with the mince in my version.

I would also say that slightly under-cooking the mince (as is traditional but not recommended by the recipe authors) would be better, as this will allow the flavours to soak in more easily, with residual heat finishing the cooking off. I would also suggest draining off most of the liquid that forms when you cook the mince, so that your finished dish is not soaking in the liquor (and so you don't dilute the sharpness of the lime! (g)).

Next time I will be adding plenty more herbs than the recipe says (perhaps they mean stems rather than sprigs??) and garnish with some largish red chili rings (as in the DH mag picture). Large so that they can be taken out easily by those that don't want to eat them.

Also, I left the "toasted rice" out because I've no idea what it is (g).

Note that the recipe yields only a small amount. I doubled it, and it served 6 (alongside various other dishes).

We used salad greens as wrappers for the larb, and a dipping sauce would have been nice with it as well.

Laab: Spicy Thai mince and herb salad

Laab, also known as Larb and Laap, is a northeastern food. It usually eaten as a part of a set (laab, papaya salad and sticky rice.) The set is accompanied by string beans, sliver of cabbage, water spinach and Thai basil. It can be served as an appetizer. It can also be served as a main course along with other non-northeastern food. There are variations of laab, duck laab, chicken laab. Some people like my brother love to include a few pieces of liver in laab.

1-2 Servings

1 tablespoon toasted rice
1/4 shallot, thinly sliced
1-2 limes
1/2 lbs ground pork (beef or chicken)
1/4 tablespoon ground dried chili pepper
3 tablespoons fish sauce
5 sprigs cilantro [coriander], sliced
3 sprigs spearmint
1 green onion [spring onion], sliced

Tips and substitutions
Substitute any ground meat for ground pork. Substitute red onion or just onion for shallot if you like. The spearmint adds zing to the laab.

Squeeze juice from 1/3 of the lime on to the ground pork. Mix well and let it marinade for just a couple of minutes until you are ready to cook it.

For this dish, people normally use a small pot; I use my cast iron pans because they can be heated up really hot, they retain heat well and heat evenly.

Heat up a pan on high until it is very hot. Add two tablespoons of water and then immediately add your marinated pork [S: and shallot or onion, if you prefer them cooked like me] and stir. The pork will stick to the pan at first, but then the juice will come out and the meat will loosen from the bottom. Keep stirring until the pork is well done. Traditionally, the pork is undercooked, but I do not recommend undercooking pork for health reasons.

Put the pork in a bowl a large mixing bowl that will hold all the ingredients. Add fish sauce, green onion, shallot, cilantro, the rest of the lime juice, ground chili pepper and almost all of toasted rice into the bowl. Save some toasted rice to sprinkle on top for garnish. Mix well and taste. It should be a little bit hot. You should be able to taste tartness from the lime juice and the fish sauce. If you need to add more fish sauce or lime juice, don't be afraid. Getting the flavor balance right is a trial and error process.

Put the mixed ingredients in a serving bowl, garnish with spearmint and sprinkle the rest of toasted rice on top. Serve with vegetables like cabbage, green beans, lettuce and Thai basil.


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