SERVES 4 TO 6 AS AN APPETIZER, OR 8 TO 10 AS AN HORS D’OEUVRE
Recipes for laab, a minced meat dish, vary greatly from region to region all across Thailand. I’ve highlighted a style characteristic of Issan, a northeastern region where the people are primarily ethnic Lao and Khmer and cook with a lot of heat and funk. Their version of this chopped meat salad includes lime juice and toasted rice powder. The traditional manner of making laab requires mincing the meats and grinding the herbs and spices by hand—quite a workout!—but cheating with preground meats and a food processor is perfectly okay. I like to serve my laab in cucumber “cups” (a refreshing antidote, along with some sticky rice, to the spiciness of the salad), which makes for beautiful hors d’oeuvres.
2 tablespoons light brown sugar
Juice of 2 limes (about ½ cup)
2 tablespoons fish sauce
8 to 10 large garlic cloves, minced
2 fresh red Thai chiles, seeded and minced
1 tablespoon crushed red chile flakes
1 lemongrass stalk, trimmed and finely chopped
2 fresh Kafir lime leaves, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon ground coriander
¼ teaspoon ground cardamom
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 pound ground pork
4 shallots, chopped
2 scallions (green and white parts), chopped
2 tablespoons toasted rice powder (see Note)
1 small red onion, chopped
1 cup fresh mint leaves, coarsely torn
1 cup fresh cilantro leaves, coarsely torn
1 cup fresh Thai basil leaves, coarsely torn
4 large cucumbers, sliced, for serving
Cooked warm Thai sticky rice, for serving
In a small bowl, melt the brown sugar in 2 teaspoons of hot water. Add 2 tablespoons of the lime juice and the fish sauce, and stir together. Set aside.
Using a mortar and pestle or a food processor, grind the garlic, fresh chiles, chile flakes, lemongrass, Kafir lime leaves, coriander, and cardamom into a paste.
Heat the vegetable oil in a wok over medium-high heat, add the paste, and cook for 30 seconds. Raise the heat to high and add the pork and shallots. Cook, breaking up the pork, until the meat is no longer pink, 4 to 5 minutes. Stir in the small bowl of fish sauce with the lime juice and the scallions.
Remove the wok from the heat. Stir in the rice powder, remaining lime juice, red onion, mint, cilantro, and basil.
Serve with the cucumber slices and sticky rice.
Note: To make your own rice powder, toast 1⁄2 cup uncooked sticky rice in a skillet over low heat, stirring until golden. Then grind the rice in a spice grinder or mini processor or pound it with a mortar and pestle until you have a fine powder.