Here we have another Thai-inspired dish. Thailand is famous for recipes in which ground meat is simmered in a tasty liquid and finished off with plenty of fresh aromatic herbs. Called laarb (ลาบ), these dishes are simple to make and a real pleasure to eat. As with most popular and beloved recipes, there are many variations. If you peek into woks across Thailand, you’ll see all kinds of different ingredients being used. What they all have in common is protein that is sizzled in a fragrant sauce, and finished with herbs and chiles.
This version is straightforward. It’s also traditional and very tasty. The sauce combines the principle flavors of sweet, salty, and sour into a rewarding combination, while fresh chiles provide the heat.
Start by frying some ground pork in your wok until it is no longer pink. Pour the liquid sauce over the pork and stir on high heat until the liquid is boiling. Simmer for a few moments, and then toss in the green chiles and some shallots.
The shallots and chiles will cook for a while with the pork.
About the chiles: You’ll want to base your choice of chili pepper and quantity on the heat and flavor you’re looking for. Fresh Thai chiles are a great choice, but are also famously quite hot. If you go with those, three small chiles might be sufficient. You could also use milder peppers such as jalapeños or serranos, in which case three chiles, although a much larger quantity, wouldn’t be as spicy. This is a matter of personal preference, so you’ll have to experiment to know what you like.
After the peppers and shallots begin to soften, toss in the aromatic herbs.
After the herbs wilt, it’s basically done and you’re ready to serve.
There are a few different ways to serve this dish, all “authentic” depending on the circumstances. One common way is to serve with lettuce leaves, so that diners can scoop some pork into a leaf and wrap it up, making a kind of instant spring roll. This is an easy and yet impressive way to add something unusual to your meal.
Another way is to spoon some laarb onto a plate of rice and use a spoon to bring tasty bites of rice and pork to your mouth. (Keep in mind that Thai people often eat with a spoon as the main utensil, alongside a fork that’s used to guide food onto the spoon.) Another common way to serve would be on top of a fried egg, which in turn is on top of a plate of rice.
Meanwhile, if you’re used to the Chinese style of dining, you can just spoon some laarb into your rice bowl and just eat it with chopsticks.
INGREDIENTS and PREP:
- 1/2 lb ground pork
- 4 Tbsp lime juice, 2 Tbsp fish sauce, and 1 Tbsp soy sauce
- 1 medium shallot and 3 green chiles, sliced into similarly sized pieces (see the note about selecting your chiles, above)
- 2 cups basil leaves, torn into 2″ pieces; 1 cup cilantro, roughly chopped
- Heat your wok on medium heat until hot but not smoking. Then add 2 Tbsp peanut oil and swirl it around. Add the ground pork (#1) and stir fry until the pink color is just gone, about two minutes. Then pour the sauce (#2) over the pork and stir on high heat until the liquid is boiling.
- Add the shallots and chiles (#3) and let everything cook for another minute, stirring constantly. Finally, add the aromatics (#4) and stir until the herbs are wilted and soft, about another minute or so.
- Serve with rice and contrasting dishes.
VARIATIONS: The sky is the limit here. You can use any meat in place of the pork; you can also try non-meat proteins as well. You can be creative with the herbs, using holy basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum) or Thai basil (Ocimum basilicum var. thyrsiflora) instead of sweet basil, and you can add scallions, mint, ginger, or galangal. When you experiment with various herb combinations, remember that you’re looking for a combination that tastes like a harmonious whole that is greater than the individual components. No one taste should ever overpower the others.
The essential Chinese pantry is here.