Spicy Laotian Beef Salad (Laab-Larb)
I live in an area that has a fair Lao community so I have been introduced to many of their dishes throughout the years. The first time when I was introduced to this spicy beef salad also known as laab or larb, I thought “wow, this salad packs quite a punch.” It was an explosion of flavors that tingled my taste buds. I was instantly hooked. The flavors are so unique. It’s bold but has a balance of spicy, salty, and a bit tangy.
Laab is a type of meat salad that’s loaded with a variety of fresh herbs. It is the national dish of Laos but it is also a staple in Northern Thailand. The protein of choice is usually sliced or chopped into smaller pieces. It can be either raw or cooked. I don’t eat a lot of beef but when I do, I like to make laab. I’ve also made it with chicken and pork which are cooked thoroughly. I have even made a version with shiitake mushrooms. Even clams and salmon taste great in laab form. I’m convinced that you can turn anything into laab and it will taste good.
One of the essential ingredient in laab is the roasted rice powder; not only does it add a wonderful nuttiness to the dish but it also acts as a binder. It will thicken the juice that releases from the meat and add a crispy textural element. Traditionally glutinous rice is used by toasting it on the stove top until it becomes golden and fragrant. Then it is ground up in a mortar and pestle until it becomes a coarse powder. A blender or food processor can get the job done too. I have also used jasmine rice and it works just as well. Roasted rice powder is also used in many Isaan dishes which I will share later in the future.
Laab varies from each household. Some like it fiery and some prefer it with more tartness. Sometimes you will commonly find tripe in laab. Many also like to season theirs with pungent fermented fish sauce known as padaek. I like to sear mine first to get a crust on the beef for more depth of flavor and contrast of textures. Laab is usually paired with papaya salad along with some raw vegetables. While both are delicious, I prefer them apart from each other. Papaya salad already has a mouthful of flavors going on that I feel like it clashes when paired together. I like to serve laab as a lettuce wrap and accompany it with some fresh sliced cucumbers, water spinach, and sticky rice. Many also like to serve theirs with raw cabbage, long green beans, and Thai eggplant.
- 1.5 lb beef (any cut of choice) about 1-1 1/2 inch thickness (cooking time will vary depending on thickness of cut)
- 2-3 small shallots (thinly sliced)
- 2 scallions (sliced)
- 2 tbsp lemongrass (finely chopped)
- 1 tsp galangal (optional; finely chopped)
- 6 kaffir lime leaves (stems removed; finely chopped)
- 4 Thai eggplants (optional; sliced)
- 1 tbsp lime juice
- 2 tbsp fish sauce (to taste)
- 1 tbsp roasted rice powder
- 1/2-1 tsp Thai ground roasted dried chili (to taste)
- 1 thai chili (optional; sliced)
- 10 sprigs Vietnamese coriander
- 8 sprigs cilantro
- 6 sprigs mint
- 4 sprigs thai basil
- Dry roast rice in a skillet on medium heat for about 8-10 minutes or until golden, stirring occasionally to avoid it from burning; remove from heat.
- Ground into coarse powder using a mortar and pestle or food processor.
- Preheat oven to 375 F.
- Pat beef dry with paper towels and lightly season both sides with salt.
- In an oven safe pan, turn heat to high; add beef and sear for about 2 minutes on each side until a crust forms.
- Transfer to oven; cook for about 8-10 minutes for a rare to medium rare beef. (Keep in mind that the acid in the lime juice will further “cook” the beef.)
- Remove and let it rest for about 5 minutes.
- Mince or thinly slice the beef and add into a bowl. (Make sure to also add any of the juice that the beef has accumulated.)
- Add in lemongrass, shallots, Thai eggplant, and kaffir lime leaves to beef.
- Season with fish sauce, lime juice, ground roasted dried chili, and roasted rice powder; taste and adjust to desired preference.
- Add in cilantro, mint, Vietnamese coriander, and Thai basil; toss to incorporate.
- Serve with cucumbers, lettuce, sticky rice and Thai chilies.
- It’s important to use Thai roasted dried chili as it imparts a sweet, spicy, smokey flavor that dried red chili flakes lacks.
- Glutinous rice can be found at the Asian market. Also known as sticky rice or Thai sweet rice. The rice grains are white and opaque while regular rice is translucent.
- Kaffir lime leaves can be difficult to find, you may need to ask for them at your local Asian grocery store; it has a distinctive unique citrus floral note.
- Galangal root is a close relative of ginger – it has cooling, pine like notes rather than warm and spicy notes like ginger.
- Lemongrass is a plant that has herbal and citrus notes.