Wait, does he mean Lamb, or Lard, or what? No, there was no misspelling. It is Laab because the Hmong people I worked with called it that, but it is also known as Larb, Laap, Lahb, ລາບ or a couple iterations depending on where you are in the world. No matter how you name it, the dish is all defined the same: “a meat salad”. And that is something I think we can easily get behind.
This recipe is a midwestern spin on the Lao version of Laab. Traditionally it is composed of meat, fish sauce, lime, herbs and spices. Here we take these ideas and use what you may already have in your cupboard if what you are used to cooking goes into a casserole dish or what you can pull from your garden. For those of you who like to experiment, I will give a few substitutions as to what you can put in depending on what you have available. The great thing about this dish is how much variability you can give it and still maintain the “meat salad” definition. Bolded items are preferred in the process.
What you need:
1/4 cup (or more) barley, rice (not the minute variety), or wild rice
1 lb ground pork, chicken or beef
2 small aromatic onions like purple, yellow or shallots
1/4 cup chopped cilantro or basil
1 tablespoon ground red pepper flakes (or less if you are like my good Scandinavian mother)
1/2 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
1/2 tablespoon white sugar or Mirin
1 tablespoon soy sauce
20 mint leaves
Put it together:
In a warm, oil-free frying pan on medium low, pour the wild rice and stir until the rice has become quite aromatic. It should smell like baked bread and become slightly darker in color, about 10 minutes. Pour the rice into a food processor or mortar and pestle and mix until it is a course flour. Set aside.
Dice the onion into a bowl and chop the basil and keep separate. In a large saucepan or pot stir the ground beef until almost cooked. Add the onion and finish cooking the meat to get the onions a slight translucence to them. Turn off the heat and remove the pot.
Drain the liquids if you would like at this point. Add the rice flour from the first step, basil, red pepper, apple cider vinegar, mirin and soy sauce. Stir, taste the mixture, and add any flavors from here that you want to exploit more: basil for pepper/tangy, red pepper for heat, vinegar for sour, or mirin for sweetness. Add the final ingredient of the mint leaves and mix gently to incorporate.
Serve with a side of rice, warmed lettuce for a wrap, or put into a bun to make a version of the sloppy joe! All are great options. Happy eating, and remember – Laab is made to be created as your own! What will you add when you make it?