Lao Cuisine — Larb, Spicy Beef with Greens and Herbs

The Lao people originally came from the region that is now southeast China, and in the time since have spread throughout southeast Asia, introducing their culinary traditions along the way.  In that sense, it can be said that the cuisine of Laos is the mother cuisine of the entire region.  The food that most defines the Lao is clearly sticky rice.  So important is sticky rice to the national diet that many Lao call themselves “Luk Khao Niaow,” “children of sticky rice.”

Laos quick facts:

  • Capital: Vientiane
  • Population: 6,500,000 (2012 estimate)
  • Notable Lao: Settathathirath, Kahn Souphanousinphone

The most famous Lao main course is larb (also transliterated as lab, laab, lap, or larp, recipe follows).  Ground meat is cooked with chilies, onions, garlic, fish sauce, and most impotantly khao khua, roasted rice powder.  Khao khua gives the dish a nutty, toasty flavor that can’t be easily replicated in any other way.  It is available at southeast Asian groceries for purchase, but it is simple to make at home (with the added benefit of not having to store any surplus).

Larb

(adapted from Bois de Jasmin)

  • 3/4 pound ground beef
  • 4 shallots (2 sliced thinly, 2 minced)
  • 5 green onions, 2 garlic cloves, 2 Thai chilies, sliced thinly
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 1 Tbs fish sauce
  • Juice of 1 lime
  • 2 Tbs khao khua, roasted rice powder

Salad garnishes:

  • Mint and cilantro leaves
  • Lettuce
  • String beans
  • Cucumber, green onions, Thai chilies, lime, sliced

First we heated a cast iron pan over medium heat and put our rice on to toast to make the khao khua:

ricetoasting

Stirring almost constantly, after a few minutes the rice had browned significantly:

ricetoasted

Once satisfied with the color of the rice, it was removed to our trusty mortar to cool:

ricereadytogrind

After a few minutes the toasted rice was ground into as fine a powder as our patience allowed:

riceground

At this point we were ready to build the larb.  First we heated a tablespoon or so of oil in a pan over medium heat, then added the sliced shallots, garlic, green onions, and chilies:

labfirstlayer

After about six minutes everything had softened and we added the beef, sugar, and fish sauce:

meatlayer

The meat was stirred and cooked until it was browned all over, about three minutes, then we added the lime juice:

liquidlayer

The larb was taken off the heat and put into a mixing bowl to cool and to allow the flavors to combine.  The minced shallots, herbs, and rice powder were added to the bowl:

labandricepowder

…and everything was stirred to incorporate:

labmixed

The larb was served on a salad made of the lettuce, beans, cucumber, lime slices, and chilies:

labplated

The flavors of fresh herbs, Thai chiles, and fish sauce clearly reveal larb’s southeast Asian origins.  The spicy, nutty beef was paired perfectly with the cool, crisp lettuce and cucumber slices.  Once everything was prepped, the dish was very easy to prepare, making it a perfect weeknight entree.

More from our Lao meal:

Bamboo soup with quail eggs

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