Hot, sharp, salty, sour, and nutty. They’re the cornerstone flavors in larb isaan, a super-savory, stylish salad from Laos and Thailand. Our larb recipe features diced chicken cooked with Thai bird’s eye chilies, toasted rice, lime juice, red onion, and fish sauce.
Tabbouleh, Waldorf, Nicoise, Cobb, Caesar, and Greek. Now, there’s an A-list of five-star salads. And larb isaan slots right in there. There are two reasons why it ranks so high in the world of stellar salads – it’s seriously fiery, and it’s best eaten with your fingers.
This salad buzzes with excitement. Not only does it get top marks for taste, texture and appearance, the way you eat it has such a deeply satisfying, elemental appeal. That’s because it comes with its own, please-eat-me spoons – the scoop-like leaves of crisp cos lettuce that hold the tender, thrillingly hot chicken. It’s a salad that shines most brightly when you get seriously involved with it.
The anglicized word, larb, has umpteen written forms, such as laap, larp, lahb, lap, and laab. More significantly, there are far more varieties of larb than there are ways to spell it. Apart from chicken, larb recipes can typically have pork, duck, or beef as its centerpiece. And there are other variants that revolve around seafood, mushrooms, tofu, and fish.
But, strictly speaking, larb refers to finely chopped or ground meat. So, with a nod to authenticity, that’s what we’re sticking to here. As for isaan, well, that means ‘north-eastern’ in Thai, and tags the area of the country that has long been associated with this particular larb.
Although it comes in many different guises, larb does have some essential, core characteristics. There should be a good blast of heat coming from the bird’s eye chilies, and that fire needs to be brightened with lime juice and stoked by the insistent, umami saltiness of fish sauce. Thinly sliced red onions or shallots add a nice tart bite, and then there are the distinctive, vibrantly herbal flavors of fresh cilantro and mint.
The list of essentials for our larb ends with the wonderfully aromatic, nutty taste of ground, dry-toasted rice. Known as khao khua (rice, toasted), it’s a signature ingredient in Thailand’s isaan cuisine. Added fairly sparsely at the end of the chicken’s fast cooking, the khao khua also works as a thickener, giving your larb its lovely velvety gloss.
A couple of cool companions
For me, the overall appeal of our larb isaan gets a big boost from the way it’s served. Fresh cos lettuce leaves form colorful, edible bowls for the larb, and a few chunky sticks of cucumber are offered alongside. That duo of juicily crunchy companions are the perfect foil to the larb’s fiery, rich flavors.
On their own, these two buddies really accentuate a key feature of larb isaan: its delightful simplicity. For sure, you could gussie things up with slices of avocado, some radishes, and a few cherry tomatoes, but I reckon this is one of those dishes where simpler is better.
What I would recommend though, is garnishing your lettuce-cupped larb with a few very thinly sliced discs of those bird’s eye chilies. That sprinkle introduces a potently fresh spark of heat that’s quite different than the less immediate, cooked-in fieriness that the chilies will have already given your larb isaan.
Choosing and cooking your chicken
For the fullest flavor, free-range chicken thighs would definitely be my choice. And, for convenience, I’d go for the skinless, boneless variety that can easily be chopped to a fairly coarse texture. For larb, that consistency is important both in terms of retaining the meat’s flavors among the other ingredients, and to prevent the chicken from becoming a sadly glutinous mass as it cooks.
Skinless, boneless thighs are also a grand choice because this is not a dish where you’re looking to fry chicken over a high heat to crisp its skin and melt the fat beneath it. With larb, there is no cooking oil.
So, rather than being stir fried, the coarsely chopped chicken is ‘stir poached’ for a few minutes in a little water and fish sauce. You’ll then finish cooking it for a couple more minutes along with the chilies, onion, and cilantro – just enough time to soften that trio a little and pull out their flavors. The chicken then comes off the heat before you stir in some more fish sauce, the lime juice, and, finally the toasted rice.
As for timing, five minutes in a big skillet set on a low-medium heat is all it takes to cook your larb.
The khao khua – the absolutely essential ingredient that’s very easily made
Making this is so straightforward that it’s almost hard to believe the khao khua can add such a noticeably outstanding dimension to the flavors and textures of your larb. But it certainly does.
You simply heat a pan over a medium heat, add a few tablespoons of uncooked rice (I used Jasmine rice) and dry-toast the regularly stirred grains until they turn a deep golden color. Let the toasted rice cool a little and then grind it to a coarse-ish powder in a pestle and mortar or an electric spice grinder. Very simple, very isaan.
I went the electric grinder route and had the toast-and-grind process sorted in about ten, leisurely minutes. It really is one of those happy kitchen tasks where surprisingly little effort produces surprisingly high rewards. And that’s especially true if, like me, you’d never heard of khao khua – let alone made some.
Sticky rice and quarters of fresh limes would be very traditional on the side. But jasmine rice would be my choice here, and I like it cooked until it’s nicely sticky. I’d also keep the quantity fairly low, and allow just a ¼ cup of uncooked rice per person. The rice is not here as a side dish, but rather as a contrasting addition to each person’s plate.
As for the quarters of lime, well, I really like the extra, sharp tang they add when squeezed over the chicken, lettuce, and cucumber.
Larb Isaan With Jasmine Rice
For the chicken
- 8 fresh red Thai bird’s eye chilies thinly sliced into discs about 1/8-inch thick, seeds and all. The ones I used were each about 1 ½ inches long.
- 2 pounds free-range skinless, boneless chicken thighs coarsely chopped to about the same consistency as beef for a burger.
- 2 red onions medium-sized, peeled, halved, and thinly sliced
- 1 ounce fresh cilantro roughly chopped, stalks and all
- ½ ounce fresh mint leaves left whole. These are for garnishing your larb once you’ve plated it.
- 3 tablespoons fish sauce
- 3 tablespoons lime juice
- 4 tablespoons water
For the ground toasted rice
- 2 heaped tablespoons uncooked jasmine rice
For the sticky rice
- 1 cup jasmine rice cooked according to the instructions on the pack. (That usually means using 1 ¼ cups of water for 1 cup of rice.)
- 1 teaspoon ground sea salt for the rice’s cooking water
For the lettuce and cucumber
- 1 cos lettuce medium-sized, with the stem and any limp outer leaves removed. Separate the leaves so you have 3 crisp bowl-like leaves for each person – 12 leaves in total. I’d use cos lettuce particularly because the leaves are nice and firm and they make a grand ‘bowl’ for the chicken.
- 1 English cucumber medium-sized, cut into sticks about 3 inches long and 1 inch wide.
For the garnishing limes and chilies
- 2 fresh limes medium-sized, each cut into quarters
- 4 fresh red Thai bird’s eye chilies thinly sliced into discs about 1/8-inch thick, seeds and all. Put the slices into a pretty little dish so folks can sprinkle a few over their chicken at the table.
Making the ground toasted rice
- I’d start with this because you want the toasted rice to be ground and ready for adding to the chicken right at the end of its cooking.
- So, set a medium-size saucepan on a medium heat and add the 2 tablespoons uncooked rice. Stir the rice regularly as is toasts over that medium heat until all the grains take on a dark golden color. That’ll take about 7 minutes, but be watchful here so as not to burn the rice.
- Take the pan off the heat and turn the toasted rice into a bowl so it can cool for a couple of minutes before you coarsely grind it. To do that, I used an electric spice / coffee grinder, but you could use a pestle and mortar. You’ll find that the toasted rice is far more brittle than raw rice, which means that it grinds to a coarse powder surprisingly quickly.
Cooking the chicken
- I used a heavy, deep-sided 12-inch skillet for this, but a similarly broad saucepan will be fine.
- Set the skillet on a medium heat and add the water. As soon as the water starts to simmer, drop the heat to low-medium and thoroughly stir in the chopped chicken and 1 tablespoon oriental fish sauce. (The other 2 tablespoons of fish sauce are going to be added a little later.)
- Keep stirring gently as the chicken cooks on that low-medium heat for 2 minutes.
- Now stir in the chilies, red onion, and cilantro. Keep stirring the mix gently for another 2 minutes on low-medium.
- Turn off the heat and add 2 tablespoons fish sauce, the lime juice, and the ground, toasted rice. Give the mixture a good stir so that everything is well combined – that’s it, the chicken is done.
- You can now let the chicken cool to about room temperature while you prep the lettuce and cucumber, so they’re ready for serving with your larb isaan.
Plating and serving your larb isaan
- On each person’s plate, arrange the leaves attractively so that one leaf can be filled with its fair serving of the chicken.
- Now spoon the warm chicken into your chosen ‘leaf bowl’ and set a few sticks of cucumber around the plate along with two quarters of the fresh limes.
- Add a nicely formed mound of sticky rice to each plate and then sprinkle a few of the mint leaves over the chicken.
- Your larb isaan is now ready to serve alongside your little bowl of garnishing chillies so that fire-loving folks can help themselves.