After spending a week running around the Isaan region of Thailand, one thing was certain: the region has some of the best food around. It's home to all sorts of bold, spicy food, one of which—larb, a sort of ground meat salad—is my standard order whenever I go to Thai restaurants. It is one of those dishes that, at its best, hits all of the major Thai flavors: sweet, sour, spicy, salty, and funky.
While in Isaan, I had versions made with pork, beef, and duck and one was better than the next. Here is a basic recipe for larb. Note that it would include toasted rice powder if it were more traditional but this is how I like it. Often, I serve in lettuce as a makeshift lettuce wrap (again not traditional), but feel free to make it more spicy, sour, sweet, or funky to fit your tastes.
quartered and thinly sliced
trimmed and thinly sliced (optional)
peeled and grated
peeled and grated
can use ground chicken or turkey
or 1-2 teaspoons chili sauce
(or culantro or cilantro or a mix) plus more for garnish
washed and separated
Combine the fish sauce, 2 tablespoons of the lime juice, and sugar in a small jar, close, and shake until the sugar is dissolved. (You could also whisk this -- just make sure that sugar is well mixed in.) Taste the sauce and, if you want it fresher and brighter and less funky, add the remaining 1 tablespoon of lime juice.
Fish sauce is pretty widely available in both standard grocery stores and ethnic markets. If you have a choice, go for extra virgin or first pressing because it will have better flavor.
Heat oil in a large nonstick frying pan over medium-high heat. When the oil shimmers, add shallots and the white parts of the green onions (save the green parts for later) and cook, stirring a few times, until golden brown, about 1 minute. Add ginger and garlic and cook a few seconds until fragrant.
You could use a variety of oils here but I'm partial the slight tropical flavor that coconut oil lends. If you've never handled ginger before, check out this tip on how to peel it. Then, to make quick work of preparing it, just grate it (and your garlic) on a rasp grater.
Add pork, chicken or turkey and, use a wooden spoon or spatula, to break the meat into bite-sized pieces. Season with chile powder, chile sauce (if using), and some kosher salt and cook, stirring rarely, until meat is cooked through and golden brown, about 5 minutes. Stir in the sauce ingredients and cook until there's only enough left to coat the meat mixture, about 1 minute more.
Remove from heat, stir in remaining scallions and the herbs. Taste and adjust seasoning as desired. Serve hot or cold, filling each lettuce cups with a few spoonfuls of filling. Top with additional herbs and lime wedges, as desired.
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