Friday, April 10, 2015

Larb Moo | Thai Spicy Ground Pork Salad

Just in time for the Songkran Festival in Thailand - known to many as the water festival stretching the span of three days in welcoming the Thai New Year - I decided to throw a themed dinner party featuring some of the most loved Thai dishes.

At once exotic as it is now familiar to almost every part of the world, Thai cuisine is a profusion of complex flavors and fragrances, guided by the intricate balance of sweet, sour, spicy, and pungent. I have long had a love affair with Thai food, but it wasn't until I enrolled in my first ever cooking school experience in Chiang Mai have I gained such insight and respect for this truly sensational realm of cooking.

The shimmering golden stupa of a Wat, my solo trip to Chiang Mai | 2012
Having a blast at the Thai Farm Cooking School!
It is hard not to fall in love with Thai food. Fortunately, creating some of the most iconic dishes can be just as easy at home.

Larb (ลาบ) is a classic Isaan dish originating from Northeastern Thailand, and is typically prepared with pork or chicken. Enjoy it with a ball of warm, fresh sticky rice, or wrap it in a luscious lettuce leaf for a delicious starter or a light lunch. Not unlike many Thai dishes, larb takes its flavors and aromas from fish sauce, lime, chili, and sugar, in addition to shallots, abundant herbs, and - most importantly - toasted sticky rice, or khao kua (ข้าวคั่ว).

Although hardly visible once mixed into the pork, the toasted rice imparts a roasted fragrance and crunch that is characteristic to larb. Just like toasting nuts, toasting and grinding rice is SIMPLE, so don't skip it! All the measurements for seasonings below are approximate, as ultimately it is the tongue that knows best (I second Rachel Ray in that I clearly do not swear by precise measuring in the kitchen).

To prepare...
1/4 cup uncooked Thai sticky rice*
1 lb (460 grams) ground pork
1 tablepoon Thai ground chili^
1 tablespoon fish sauce
Pinch of sugar
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice, plus zest of the limes
4 small shallots, chopped
Handful of chopped spring onion
Handful of fresh mint
Handful of fresh cilantro
2 heads of little gem lettuce, rinsed, to serve

*Note: if unavailable, substitute with pearl rice. I used a Korean short-grain variety.
^Note: if unavailable, use crushed red pepper flakes and chili powder like I did!

1. For the khao kua... Heat a dry frying pan on low heat and toss in uncooked rice. Toast the rice until fragrant and nutty, shaking pan occasionally. Turn heat off as soon as the rice turns golden yellow and begins to brown. Set aside to cool slightly. Pound the toasted rice with a mortar and pestle the traditional way or give it a quick blitz in a blender. Be sure not to grind it into fine powder to keep some crunch.

2. For the larb... In a saucepan on medium heat, add ground pork, stirring frequently to break into small pieces until completely cooked. Tip in a heaping tablespoon of toasted rice powder and add chili flakes, sugar, fish sauce, lime juice and zest.

3. In the same pot, mix in chopped spring onion and shallots. Roughly chop some of the mint and cilantro and add to pork mixture. Give the larb a good mix, adding more seasoning and toasted rice until it tastes just right. Be bold!

4. Scatter the remaining mint and cilantro over the larb and dish it out with a fresh bed of gem lettuce leaves. Enjoy!

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