Why It Works
- Simmering ground pork in a small amount of water prevents unwanted browning, keeping the meat juicy and tender.
- Khao khua (toasted-rice powder) adds nuttiness and subtle crunch to the salad, while also thickening the dressing.
- Allowing the meat to cool slightly before adding the fresh herbs helps keep their bright flavor and color.
Salads are a key component to a balanced Thai meal, and if you love a protein-heavy salad, you’ll love laab. Like tam (pounded salads) or yam (mixed salads), laab is a distinct salad category that’s defined by an action—namely, chopping or mincing. As such, laab can best be described as a chopped or minced meat salad.
In Laos and Isan, the northeastern region of Thailand that borders Laos and Cambodia, laab is characterized by a savory-spicy-sour dressing, made with fish sauce, lime juice, and ground dried chiles, copious amounts of fresh herbs, mint in particular, and khao khua, or toasted-rice powder, which contributes a unique texture and nutty aroma. Laab moo Isan, or Isan-style pork laab, is a great introduction to this regional style of salad as it can be easily made with ground pork, requires minimal cooking, and comes together in minutes.
Before we get into the details of this recipe, however, I want to take a second to discuss the other common transliterations for laab. Yes, laab and larb are the same thing. The same goes for laap and larp. That said, laab and laap provide much better approximations of the correct pronunciation for the word in Thai, as the “ar” sound in English resembles the Thai pronunciation the least.
With that out of the way, we can turn to the recipe. Purists may argue that in order to meet the criteria of laab, the meat for the salad must be hand-minced. For some proteins, such as chicken, I agree, since I find store-bought ground chicken to be pasty and lean. But I take a more lenient approach with pork. Coarsely ground pork shoulder makes great laab and will save you a lot of time and energy.
For this style of laab, you want to quickly simmer the ground meat with a couple tablespoons of water until it’s just cooked through. If you’re familiar with Maillard browning and are thinking there’s no way it’ll happen in these conditions, you’re right. The goal here is pretty much the exact opposite—you don’t want any browning on the meat as you want its flavors to be subtle.
Once the pork is cooked through, take the saucepan off the heat, and stir in fish sauce, lime juice, and ground dried chiles. Unlike yam salads, sugar doesn’t play a big role in the dressing for laab, and is often omitted entirely, but for this version, you have the option of adding a small pinch at this stage if you want a hint of sweetness to balance the heat and acidity of the dressing. Give the pork a few minutes to absorb the dressing and cool down a little before tossing in a handful each of shallots, culantro, cilantro, and scallions. Mint is the most vital fresh herb for laab, and it’s best to hold off on adding it until right before serving, as it will bruise, blacken, and turn bitter if left to marinate in the acidic dressing with the warm pork.
Wait until the last moment to add the khao khua as well. The toasted-rice powder helps to thicken the dressing and lends a subtle, pleasant crunch to the salad, but if you stir it in too early it will really soak up the dressing and become gloopy. So before you finish up the laab, make sure your dining companions are ready to eat, and you have all the other components of the meal ready to go. Sticky rice is a required accompaniment for Isan-style laab, and an assortment of vegetables, or pak laab, is typically offered alongside as well. The vegetables are meant to be enjoyed in between bites of salad, and they can consist of a selection as simple as strips of cut cabbage, long beans, and sliced cucumbers.
If you’re planning on serving laab as a light lunch, get the sticky rice and vegetables prepared, or if you’re planning on serving a multi-dish Thai meal, then get everything else on the table, then put together the laab at the last minute, adding the mint and khao khua just before placing it on the table.