Laab (or larb as it’s also commonly spelled) is to all intents and purposes a meat-based salad particularly popular in North East Thailand and Laos. While chicken laab is popular both in its native land as well as in other countries, a typical laab can be composed of any minced meat, herbs and some variation of onion, seasoned with the balanced flavour combination of hot-sour-salty so typically found in South East Asian cooking, making it a bold hit of meaty goodness, traditionally eaten with balls of sticky rice. Indeed, sticky rice is a key component of the dish, wherein toasted and finely ground sticky rice is used to both flavour and thicken it.
Laab can be made with pretty much any kind of meat, and though the basic formula remains the same, various regional and personal variations make this an infinitely customisable dish. The following is a variation that I learned in Vientiane while travelling through Laos, and is a fairly traditional recipe that I’ve tweaked a little according to availability of ingredients and personal taste preferences.
We’re using chicken here, and while other recipes may use just meat, in this case the original recipe calls for a combination of meat, skin, liver and gizzard – when I was shown how to make it, these were all chopped up and cooked off together. I always prefer to use chicken thighs, and you can use pre-minced, or mince your own in a processor or by hand. I’ve left in the liver too, but not the gizzard.
I’m not the greatest fan of soft chicken skin, so I’ve put in a little twist by making what is essentially chicken crackling – crispy-fried chicken skin, which adds a slightly different texture and flavour. You can easily leave out the liver or the skin if you’re not a fan, but they do add an interesting depth to the whole thing.
Otherwise the flavourings are pretty standard across the laab family – garlic, chilli, lime, toasted rice powder, and fish sauce. The original recipe uses padaek, which is a kind of fermented thick fish sauce used extensively in Laos, but using regular fish sauce is perfectly acceptable instead (though padaek has a stronger flavour than regular fish sauce).
Fresh ingredients include the obligatory mint and coriander (in Laos they use sawtooth coriander/ culantro, so use that if you can get it), spring onion, and also some chopped green beans. The beans add a bit of extra texture and crunch to the laab – here it replaces sliced banana blossom from the original, but I have had other laabs which use chopped beans, so it’s not too much of a stretch.
There’s probably more herbs used in this recipe than normal, but I personally like the freshness and extra lift of flavour they impart. But dial back the amount of herbs if you’d like a more meat-centric end result. Lastly, the crispy fried shallots are the ones you find already fried and which come in plastics bags or tubs – they give a nice contrast to the fresh sour flavours, and they go well with pretty much anything really.
Enjoy as part of a meal Laos dips, soups etc, with plenty of sticky rice!