How to make the perfect pork (or chicken, duck or tofu) – recipe | food

Larb, also transcribed as larp, lap, laap, laarp and laab, is a dish that doesn’t fit easily into Western pigeonholes. A heavily seasoned mixture of chopped meat, fish, tofu or mushrooms – Thai food writer Leela Punyaratabandhu clarifies that laab is "a verb denoting the chopping of meat" – which, as Thai food writer Kay Plunkett-Hogge observes, "can also be called salad, as it is often served in lettuce leaves".

It’s not even strictly Thai, though the travel hub of Southeast Asia is where most Brits are likely to have come across it; a northern specialty said to have originated with the Tai people, variations of the dish can also be found in Laos, Myanmar, and southwestern China. The one you’re most likely to be familiar with, however, is laarp isan, from the region of the same name in northeastern Thailand: as Punyaratabandhu explains, "the way laps are made varies from province to province, and it is difficult to pin down a normative version – if there is one. But this version is most common in Bangkok and in Thai restaurants outside of Thailand. It’s also one of the easiest."

The meat (or not)

Meat for larb must be chopped by hand, chef David Thompson points out. All thumbnails of Felicity Cloake.

Almost all the recipes I try make it clear that almost any meat will do; as Plunkett-Hogge reports her book Baan, "Feel free to substitute pork, chicken or rabbit for the duck … firm tofu can also be used, as can mushrooms for non-meat eaters". I try pork (lean is generally indicated), chicken, duck and tofu and can confirm that they are all great blank canvases for the seasonings. But my testers and I found the chicken breast I used in Punyaratabandhu’s recipe to be a bit dry, so although the meat should ideally be fairly lean (it’s not cooked long enough for the fat to melt), I suspect thigh, or a mixture of both , might be a better choice if you opt for chicken.

Most recipes call for ground or chopped meat, with only David Thompson stating it should be chopped by hand – The acclaimed Australian-born chef tells Marina O’Loughlin that you should do this "just before cooking so it can’t oxidize and you don’t get a bloody, messy mixture".. Plunkett-Hogge, who sends me a video of a Karen elephant mahout chopping buffalo meat with an impressive-looking blade, says she likes to "chop by hand when I can – the meat should have a pleasant mouthfeel and some texture . But my attitude is that the dish is so good that you can use what you can get. Most of my buddies buy ground beef at the local supermarket or butcher’s shop. I don’t like a lot of gristle or lumps, but some do." I also prefer the slightly larger pieces you get when you chop meat rather than mince meat, but if you’d rather buy ground beef, do it.

The boil

J Kenji Lopez-Alts Laab for Felicity Cloake, 29 January 2022

J Kenji Lopez-Alt makes his larb by adding a little liquid to the pan before cooking the meat.

If you use tofu, I would recommend frying it in neutral oil over medium heat until golden browninstead of using the "ruan" technique of "cooking minced meat in a little water" that Pailin Chongchitnant of the Hot Thai Kitchen blog and channel suggests arose because Isaan is a "very poor part of Thailand and … water is cheaper than oil, so if you can cook something in water instead of oil, then why not?" Fortunately, this also keeps the meat juicy instead of greasy J Kenji Lopez-Alt of Serious Eats found the fried option, while poaching robs the meat of some of its flavor, he says. Ruan, in which the meat is fried in little liquid, he calls "the best of both worlds". My testers and I like the way it adds a little fish sauce to the pan so that the meat picks up some of the intensely savory flavor that is a key note of the dish as a whole.

The vegetables

Kay Plunkett-Hogge’s larb goes heavy on the shallots.

Often referred to as a salad, as Plunkett-Hogge clarifies, this is more due to the garnishes than the main ingredients, although she tells me she likes her larb with shallots. This is perhaps the most common addition, usually finely chopped and raw, but I like the way Chongchitnant adds them to the hot pan to wilt. Lopez-Alt fries his crispy, while Thompson also purees charred shallots into the mix to give his version a slightly smoky background note. We find that the bold heat of the raw variety (small red shallots are more fiery than pink shallots, but either will do) works best with the other pungent flavors, but if you want a little more sweetness, you can go off-piste and add crunchy shallots as a garnish. Chongchitnant, Lopez-Alt, and Thompson also add scallions, and the latter adds roasted garlic, but I’m going to keep things simple and just stick with the one leek because I want to taste the meat.

Punyaratabandhu starts her dish with roasted galangal, which has a peppery, slightly bitter, aromatic flavor, while Plunkett-Hogge adds the more delicately fragrant lemongrass. Both are fine additions when you have them, but neither feels like they make or break the dish, unlike the pungent shallots or fresh herbs that, as Lopez-Alt notes, "play a big role here". Mint and cilantro are most common, though Lopez-Alt also suggests basil. A recipe from Thai cafe chain Rosa’s This includes dill, which may be a bit minor but is easier to come by than the sawtooth coriander Thompson calls for or Vietnamese mint, which prove elusive even after a tour of London’s Southeast Asia specialists. If soap coriander and sweet mint are good enough for punyaratabandhu, then they are good enough for me.

The spices

"Predominantly sour, then salty": leela punyaratabandhu’s larb.

Punyaratabandhu informs readers of her book Simple Thai Food this larb should be "predominantly sour, then salty" – something echoed by Plunkett-Hogge, who describes its flavor profile as "hot, spicy and salty". That means lots of fish sauce and lime juice, but no sugar – or at least no more than a pinch. The two tablespoons of palm sugar in Serious Eats’ version remind me of Plunkett-Hogge’s plea that the dish "should not be sweet. This is a huge bugbear of mine with Thai food – sugar has crept in where it shouldn’t be. Isaan food is hot, spicy, sour, salty – it’s a super hot climate and you want those flavors."

That heat comes from ground, dried bird’s eye chilies. Lopez-Alt points out that the quality of the chilies is paramount: "I’ve seen recipes that simply use dried red chili flakes, but they lack the dark, smoky, and sweet-hot flavor of Thai-style dried ground chilies ."Fortunately, they are quite readily available in their whole form and can be ground and added to taste.

Pailin Chongchitnants Larb with Tofu: “Without ground rice it is not Larb.”

Finally we come to khao khua, or glutinous rice powder, an ingredient that sounds intimidating but is literally sticky rice toasted in a dry pan and then pounded in a mortar – in Chongchitnant”s opinion “it’s not laap without it”. The ground rice adds a nutty, slightly bitter flavor and an interesting graininess, and although it is available ready-made, it is much easier to prepare at home: As Chongchitnant notes, the flavor is “very fleeting,” so it pays to prepare only as much as you need to.


Larb should be served warm or at room temperature with a mixture of crisp fresh vegetables (lettuce leaves, cucumber sticks, raw beans or cabbage) and steamed sticky rice. You could garnish it with fresh chilies and crispy, crumbled roast pork, as Lopez-Alt recommends, but I think you’d be wasting time you could be spending on food.

Perfect pork (or chicken, duck or tofu) Larb

Preparation 20 minutes
Cook 2 minutes
Serves 2 with rice and vegetablesor 4 as part of a larger meal

3 tablespoons glutinous rice/sticky riceplus extra to serve
200 grams of fairly lean pork, chicken thighs, duck breast, or tofu (if you use the latter, see note on frying above), coarsely chopped or finely chopped by hand
1 tablespoon fish sauce (vegan if needed)
4 red shallotsor 2 round shallots, peeled and finely sliced
½-2 tsp. red Thai chili powder (made from ground dried bird’s eye chiles), to taste – I used 1 tsp, which made the finished dish quite spicy
1½ tbsp lime juice
1 large handful of fresh cilantro
coarsely chopped
1 large handful of fresh mint leavescoarsely chopped
Steamed sticky rice, lettuce leaves, cucumber slices, raw green beans, etcserve

Photo: Dan Matthews/The Guardian. Food styling: Loic Parisot.

To make the rice powder, toast the raw rice in a dry frying pan over medium heat, stir or shake the pan very regularly until it turns a deep golden color, and then use a pestle and mortar or spice grinder to grind it into a powder.

Photo: Dan Matthews/The Guardian. Food styling: Loic Parisot.

Put two tablespoons of water in a small saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Add the meat and a dash of fish sauce and cook, stirring, until done (even if you want it cooked through, be careful not to overdo it as the end result will be rubbery).

Photo: Dan Matthews/The Guardian. Food styling: Loic Parisot.

Remove the pot from the heat and stir in the sliced shallots. Let it collapse for a few seconds, then add the chili, remaining fish sauce and lime juice. Taste and add more if you like, then stir through the herbs and a tablespoon and a half of the rice powder.

Serve warm with sticky rice and crunchy vegetables.

Laab, lap, laap, larb: It comes to us transcribed many different ways, but which is your favorite version (I’m fascinated by spicy, offal-rich laab kua), and what do you like to serve with it?

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