Everyone’s eaten at Thai restaurants. There are Vietnamese places popping up all over. My old DC neighborhood even had a Malaysian eatery on the corner.
But what the heck is Laotian food?
I wondered the same thing before I visited Laos, the small country bordered by Thailand and Cambodia. And obviously this was the first question I asked once I got there.
Basically, it’s a cuisine influenced by Northern Thailand, Cambodia and the French, with a heavy emphasis on fresh herbs, spices and vegetables. And everything, and I mean everything, is served with a basket of sticky white rice.
The most popular dish in Laos has to be Larb (also spelled Larp or Laap). It’s a spicy salad of minced meat or fish, greens, herbs and spices and is absolutely delicious. Locals tend to eat the salad by rolling little balls of sticky rice and using it as their utensil. So this is, of course, how you should eat it too.
Below is the recipe I got from the Tamnak Lao Restaurant Cooking School in Luang Prabang (which unfortunately seems to have gone downhill since my visit, according to TripAdvisor). I made it for my parents today and it was a huge hit. Plus, it’s easy, healthy and something new!
(Note you can make this recipe with fish, tofu or pork)
This recipe serves one person or three if shared with other dishes.
• 1 large chicken breast with skin removed, minced into small pieces
• 1 small chicken bouillon cube
• 1 medium lime, juiced
• 2 TBSP hot water
• 2 kaffir lime leaves, sliced thinly
• 1 spring onion, sliced thinly
• 2 shallots, sliced thinly (are we seeing a pattern?)
• 2 garlic cloves (you know the drill)
• 1 bunch of cilantro, cut finely
• 2 stalks of lemongrass thinly sliced, white part only
• 6 mint leaves, thinly sliced
• ¼ tsp salt
• 1 TBSP rice powder (I found this at the local Asian market)
• 1 tsp chili powder or fresh chilies to taste if you like it hot (1-2 small Thai chilies)
• ¼ tsp fish sauce
• 1 TBSP fried garlic*
• 1 TBSP fried shallots*
1. Put the chicken stock, chicken, half of the lime juice and water into a wok or pan.
2. Place over medium heat, stirring until the chicken is cooked through.
3. Remove from the heat and place in a bowl.
4. Add the kaffir limes, spring onion, shallot, garlic, cilantro, lemongrass and mint. Mix well.
5. Add salt, rice powder, chili powder, fish sauce, fried garlic and fried shallot. Mix thoroughly.
6. Pour the remainder of the lime juice over the salad, give it a quick toss and serve it on a bed of lettuce, cucumbers and tomatoes.
*You can either buy deep fried onion and garlic at an Asian market, or make your own by slicing shallots and garlic very finely and deep-frying them in a pan until they turn golden brown. Use vegetable or canola oil and keep an eye on them! They burn quickly.
How to Make Sticky Rice:
Admittedly, I was too lazy to make the sticky rice, so we rolled the salad in lettuce leaves. And while it was great, I definitely missed being able to dip that small piece of rice in the Larb’s sauce. So, you can do one of two things: either call in a to-go order from a local Thai restaurant, or invest in a steamer and make it yourself.
These are the instructions I got from my Thai cooking school: Soak sticky rice in fresh cold water for a minimum of four hours. Afterwards wash the sticky rice with water at least two times. Put the sticky rice in a steamer and steam for about 30 minutes until the rice is very soft. When done, always keep the rice in a closed container to prevent it from drying out and becoming hard. If the rice cools down you can always steam it again.