It's been great to see E.A.T. World taking off across the blogs, and I've enjoyed travelling with everyone! Our ongoing mission: to explore new food worlds, to seek out new ingredients and new recipes, to boldly go where I almost certainly have not gone before. Like Laos!
My alphabet soup approach to E.A.T. World brings us back to southeast Asia, for an introduction to larb, sometimes called the "national dish" of Laos. Larb (or laap, larp, laab, or lob...it's one of those words with a slippery spelling as translated to English) is a salad of meat, fresh herbs, lime juice, hot peppers, and an abundance of fresh flavors.
This recipe comes from Cooking from the Heart: The Hmong Kitchen in America. The Hmong are an ethnic group from mountainous regions of Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Burma, and southern China, and the authors of Cooking from the Heart say nobody makes a better larb than Hmong cooks. I've been curious about Hmong cooking and culture since getting to know some awesome Hmong students in a summer program a few years ago - there is a large Hmong population in Minnesota, especially in the Twin Cities. This cookbook nicely combines recipes with information about Hmong tradition and culture in Laos and America.
Vegan Chik'n strips from Morningstar Farms are the meat substitute here, although nicely marinated or seasoned tempeh, seitan, or extra firm tofu would be really good too. The flavors in this salad are so bold that whatever protein you use will be instantly infused with larby goodness and taste spectacular. Promise.
Regarding all those flavors, this salad is a showcase for a few ingredients I've never used before - Sichuan peppercorns, roasted rice powder, and galangal. Sichuan peppercorns can be tricky to find because they are quite often not labelled as Sichuan peppercorns, rather "dried pepper corn" like the packet above, or other variations on that theme. If you're not sure, ask the folks are your local Asian market, like I did. They have a light citrus scent, and a reputation for causing mild numbness on the tongue. I toasted these and ground them before adding to the larb, and used a fairly generous amount. The effect, and I mean this in the most complimentary way, is a little what licking a battery must feel like. My whole mouth felt all tingly and sparkly after a few larb lettuce rolls. Really worth checking out, if you haven't tried Sichuan peppercorns before.
Regarding battery-licking, I'm sure you can find a lot of videos of kids doing that on Youtube, if you want to make yourself wish the Internet was never invented.
Above, from left to right: Galangal, lemongrass, mint, culantro, and green onions.
Besides the process of collecting and chopping all of the ingredients, larb is pretty straight-forward to make. The Chik'n strips were marinated and lightly sauteed in rice wine and lime juice. To this, I added all kinds of good stuff: lots of fresh mint and cilantro leaves, fresh culantro, green onions, a red jalapeno pepper, lemon zest, galangal, ginger, garlic, soy sauce, white pepper, more lime juice, and lemongrass. A few spoonfuls of roasted rice powder, pictured earlier, is added at the end. It adds a crumbly, sticky texture, and a distinctive and pleasing smell. You can make your own rice powder too, but it's really cheap to buy.
Once everything is tossed together, the preferred way to eat larb is in lettuce wraps. They're really onto something here, as the cool and crisp lettuce wrap is the perfect contrast to the chaotic jumble of flavors inside. Chaotic might be exactly the wrong word though, because all of these flavors come together in what might be better described as a chorus in perfect harmony. My ability to come up with a metaphor to describe what larb tastes like ends here, so I can only recommend you try it yourself sometime. I used butter lettuce, but Boston or good old iceberg lettuce would be fine too.
I'm not reprinting the entire recipe from Cooking from the Heart here, since I'm hesitant to copy recipes out of cookbooks without permission. There are a lot of larb recipes online, so google away...every one is a little different, so you can adapt to your tastes.
To settle things down after larb, here's a simple dessert of sweetened sticky rice with coconut milk and mango, also from Cooking from the Heart. I'm new to sticky rice too, and I screwed this up by overcooking the rice. It ended up as sweet sticky rice porridge, still pretty tasty, though the rice was supposed to hold together in a neat ball on the plate. Whatever :)