Larb – aka laab, laap or lop – is a staple of Laotian and Northern Thai cuisine. It’s made with ground meat or fish and seasoned with fresh herbs, chilies, lemongrass, toasted ground rice, lime juice, and fish sauce, and no matter which way you spell it this dish is savory, spicy, and packed with flavor. It’s a light yet satisfying meal, and the brief cooking time makes larb ideal warm-weather fare. I find myself having it frequently for lunch and dinner during summer. I typically make my larb with ground turkey since it’s always readily available at my local markets. The number one complaint about ground poultry is that it can be bland – particularly if you opt for the really lean stuff – but we’re going to add so much intense flavor that it’s absolutely fine to use white meat here. I personally avoid dragging my food processor from the depths of the cabinet unless absolutely necessary, but if you’d rather buy chicken and grind it yourself, go for it.
You can either plate larb as an assembled salad, or serve the components separately to allow each diner to build personalized bites wrapped in individual lettuce leaves. When serving it as a salad I fold my crisp and delicious Asian-inspired shredded vegetable slaw into the cooked meat immediately before plating. If I’m taking the DIY approach I just include a bowl of the slaw with the other separate components – a small scoop of it makes the perfect topping for each individual lettuce wrap. I like this hands-on method for casual family meals or summer gatherings because it’s fun for everyone to participate.
This is a pretty simple and straightforward recipe, so let’s get to it. If you’re toasting and grinding your own rice powder, do that first. I rarely have white rice on hand, so I like to use brown jasmine for this. Here’s my rice before toasting…
And here it is after 3 minutes over medium-low heat…
Big difference, right? Be sure to shake the pan or stir the rice frequently as it toasts so that it browns evenly. You’re getting close when it becomes fragrant and you hear the occasional snap, crackle, pop. (Homemade Rice Krispies, anyone?) Let the toasted rice cool for a few minutes, then grind it into a powder using your preferred method. I usually use a coffee grinder or spice mill, but a blender works in a pinch, and if you skipped the gym this morning and want to get in an arm workout you can always go the traditional route and pound it using a mortar and pestle.
Here’s my ground toasted rice ready to go. It will get mixed into the cooked meat later on to thicken up the juices and dressing, but for now set it aside while we tackle the slaw.
Shred and julienne the vegetables, give the herbs a rough chop, and combine everything in a bowl.
I prefer to slice/shred my vegetables very finely, but this is a totally personal choice. I’m not the knife skills police – just do the best you can to keep everything relatively uniform in width, and don’t make the pieces so thick that they’re unpleasant or awkward to chew.
Now whisk or shake together the remaining ingredients for the slaw to make a vinaigrette. It’s so chock full of aromatic, savory flavor that you might want to double the recipe and save the extra for a salad or steamed vegetables later in the week.
Pour the vinaigrette over the shredded vegetables, and toss to combine. The slaw is done, and looking gorgeous. Before we move on to the turkey, let’s talk about the other ingredients you’ll be folding into it, notably lemongrass and shallot.
I highly recommend seeking out stalks of fresh lemongrass for this dish – the flavor is amazing, and I love the texture it contributes to the soft turkey. In case you’ve never worked it before, those are fresh stalks in the photo above. I know, they don’t look like much at first. Kinda woody, with tops that have a texture similar to bamboo. Here’s a closer look at the top…
And the base…
You’ll need to remove those tough outer layers, which are inedibly fibrous. Peel away a good 3 or 4 complete layers until you get to the more tender, smooth center of the stalk.
This is what it looks like once you’ve gotten rid of all that woody exterior. Much nicer! The base of the stalk is the most tender and flavorful, so I recommend using the bottom 2 to 3 inches of it for this dish. (You can use the remaining top part of the stalk to flavor tea or soup. Just whack it with the flat side of a chef’s knife to crush it and release the flavor, then steep in water or stock.) You’ll know you’ve gotten to the best part of the stalk when you see lovely purple rings running through a cross-section of it.
See? That’s aromatic heaven right there. Now you can slice this section of lemongrass into thin rings.
Set the sliced lemongrass aside in a small bowl, and we’ll move on to the shallot. You can use red onion as a substitute here, but I prefer the flavor and structure of shallot for larb.
You’ll want to make sure that you’re slicing the shallot crosswise through the “equator” as pictured here.
Once you’ve sliced all the shallot, separate the slices into individual rings, and add them to the bowl with the lemongrass.
It’s turkey time! Set a large skillet over medium heat, get the pan hot, then add a tablespoon of stock or water to prevent the meat from browning as it cooks. I know you’re probably used to browning or ‘searing” meat, but when browned meat develops that crust on the outside, it acts as a barrier to all the seasonings you’ll be tossing with the turkey after it’s cooked, and we want those amazing flavors to soak right into the meat. Make sense? Add the ground meat and the salt to the pan, and stir it continuously with a sturdy spoon or tongs, breaking it up as it cooks. (I like tongs for this because you can keep the turkey moving and use the tips of the tongs to grab and break apart any large chunks.) You’ll do this until the meat is crumbled into relatively small bits, and cooked through completely so it’s no longer pink in the center. It should cook quickly and stay moist, but if it looks like it’s drying out, drizzle in a bit more stock or water.
Here’s the perfect example of what you want. No browning, it’s cooked through, and it’s still so moist that you can see some of the juices collected in the bottom of the pan. If I had cranked the heat up past medium I wouldn’t have gotten this result – the turkey would brown, and all the moisture would evaporate. Not the goal here.
Turn off the stove and fold the shallot and lemongrass slices directly into the turkey in the pan so the residual heat can wilt and soften them. Transfer the mixture to a large bowl, and toss with the seasonings. The recipe is a reliable guide, but everyone’s preferences differ so you may want to adjust to your own taste once you’ve added the initial seasonings as written. Of course I personally think it’s perfect as-is, but I’ll forgive you if you tweak it. Trust your palate.
At this point you can toss the larb with the slaw and serve on lettuce leaves as a salad, or set up a nice assembly line for everyone to build their own wraps. And that, my friends, is all there is to it. I wish someone had invented taste-o-vision already – this stuff is so good you’ll actually get excited about eating ground turkey. You really need to try it right now, so head into the kitchen and make some larb!
- For Slaw
- 2 oz finely shredded red cabbage (about 1 cup lightly packed)
- 1 ½ oz finely shredded napa cabbage (about 1 cup lightly packed)
- 2 green onions, thinly sliced
- 2 oz (½ medium) sweet bell pepper, small julienne
- 3½ oz (1 large) carrot, grated (yield about 1 cup)
- ¼ cup fresh herbs (mint, cilantro, basil), roughly chopped
- 25 ml (5 ½ tsp) unseasoned rice vinegar
- 20 ml (4 tsp) avocado or other neutral oil
- 5 ml (1 tsp) fresh lime juice
- 10-15 g (2 - 3 tsp) sambal oelek or other chili-garlic sauce
- Pinch coconut sugar
- ¼ tsp fish sauce*
- ¼ tsp minced fresh garlic
- ¼ tsp minced fresh ginger
- Pinch ground coriander
- 2-3 grinds black pepper
- ½ tsp toasted sesame oil
- 2 tsp minced fresh herbs (mint, cilantro & basil), from 2 Tbsp whole leaves
- 1 tsp thinly sliced scallion, white and light green parts only
- ½ tsp toasted sesame seeds
- For Larb
- 15 ml (1 Tbsp) water or unsalted stock, plus more if needed
- 1 lb minced or ground turkey (may substitute chicken)
- Pinch of salt
- 1 large (65 g) shallot, thinly sliced & separated into rings
- Tender heart of 1 stalk lemongrass, thinly sliced
- 22-30 ml (1 ½ - 2) Tbsp fish sauce*
- 2 medium limes, zested and juiced
- 1 ½ - 2 tsp ground or flaked dried red chili pepper
- 12 g (4 tsp) toasted rice powder**, divided
- 4 thinly sliced scallions
- ½ cup cilantro leaves, torn or roughly chopped
- ¼ cup mint leaves, torn or roughly chopped
- ¼ cup roasted peanuts or cashews, chopped
- For Serving
- Lettuce leaves (butter, Bibb or romaine)
- Whole cilantro and mint leaves
- Thinly sliced fresh Thai bird chilies
- Make slaw: Combine shredded cabbage, slice green onions, julienned bell pepper, grated carrot, and roughly chopped herbs in a medium bowl.
- Add remaining slaw ingredients to a small jar and shake vigorously (or whisk in a separate bowl). Taste, and adjust with more lime juice, sugar, or fish sauce if necessary; if it just needs a bit of salt, add a pinch. Drizzle vinaigrette over slaw and toss to combine.
- Make larb: Heat a large skillet over medium until hot. Add 1 tablespoon water or stock to skillet, then add the meat and salt. Stir continuously to break up the meat, and cook all the way through until no longer pink. You want the meat to remain moist and avoid browning. If it begins to dry out before it’s cooked through, add another tablespoon of water or stock. Remove from heat, add sliced shallot and lemongrass, and toss to wilt. Scrape mixture into a large bowl.
- Add 1 ½ tablespoons fish sauce, the lime juice, 1 ½ teaspoons of the dried chili, the sliced scallions, and 3 teaspoons toasted rice powder. Fold in torn/chopped cilantro and mint.
- Taste and add more fish sauce, dried chili, and/or some of the lime zest if desired. Sprinkle in remaining teaspoon rice powder and toss once or twice.
- To serve as an assembled salad: Fold in slaw. Line individual plates with lettuce leaves, spoon larb onto lettuce, and garnish with chopped nuts, sliced chilies, and herb leaves.
- To serve as individual lettuce wraps: Transfer all components - slaw, larb, roasted nuts, sliced chilies, and herb leaves - to separate serving bowls, and stack individual lettuce leaves on a plate or platter.
**To make toasted rice powder, spread 12 grams of raw sticky or jasmine rice in a dry skillet and toast, tossing frequently, until evenly golden brown, 3-4 minutes. Cool slightly, then grind to a powder in a mill or mortar + pestle. You can also buy the powder online or at a well-stocked Asian market