“You should try the larb,” Charlie tells a first time guest. “It’s the national dish of Laos.”
He’s referring to chicken larb, or larb gai, the restaurant’s take on the popular marinated meat salad. The larb is finely minced chicken fragrant with herbs, a small dousing of fish sauce, lime juice, chilies, and scallions, complimented with whole lettuce leaves, snake beans, and cucumber.
“You can make larb from anything,” Chris tells me. “When Lao people want to see if meat is good quality, they make larb from it.” Like many Lao dishes, it depends on the discretion of the cook to ultimately determine it. Larbs are always savoury, but range from mild to spicy, and can contain a number of aromatics including mint, cilantro, to banana flower. “You put everything in there. When we first opened we had duck larb on the menu that had the heart and liver and everything in it. It’d come to the table and white people’d be like ‘what is this?'”
Larb is usually served slightly warm or more likely at room temperature. The meat can be grilled on a low fire and then finely chopped up with a cleaver, or chopped up raw and cooked in a pan with very little oil. It’s then marinated with salt, fish sauce or padaek and allowed to cool before mixed with herbs. The herbs are a critical component of the larb and you can’t be cheap with them. The ratio should include approximately 1/3 the amount aromatics.
I once suggested that larb would be very easy to make from leftovers. I used to work in Southern BBQ and we’d often have leftover meats at the end of the day. My mind went to mincing the smoked chicken thighs, marinating them, and mixing them into herbs. It seemed like a tight food service economy, having one part of the menu feed into the rest of it. “I mean, that’d work.” Chris seemed reluctant about my suggestion, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Lao person do that though. I mean, yeah, it makes sense. I just think we respect the larb too much. It’s got to be made with purpose.”
A key ingredient to any authentic larb is toasted sticky rice powder. Traditionally, dried sticky rice is cooked over an element or low charcoal fire in a pan until evenly golden or caramel coloured. At Laohaus it takes about two days of being on a very low fire to reach the whisky color they like it at. “You know I’m an impatient person, right? This task is the worst. I want to rush it, but if I put the fire up and accidentally burn it the whole batch I might fuck up the whole batch. Then, I’ve got start all over!”
It’s agreed that the rice toasted in the pan is better than rice roasted in the oven, although I can’t qualitatively speak to the merits of one over the other. It’s possible to make a very nice roasted rice powder by roasting your rice in a cast iron pan in an over set to 300f for about 3 hours. Once you’ve achieved the colour you want (like a roux, the darker the stronger the flavor), let it cool and either pound it into a powder in your kokk or put it to a coffee grinder to grind it.
Larb is mostly eaten at room temperature, or just above warm. It’s important that the herbs don’t wilt, or that the diner can eat it with their hand and some khao niao. It’s equally important that it’s not served refrigerator cold. If the restaurant were busy enough to blow through a larger batch of larb within 2 hours, the health board wouldn’t have much to say about it. However, given we live in a time and place of health codes and potential penalties, all of the larb at Laohaus is cooked from raw to order and only allowed to cool enough that it won’t cooked the herbs any.
“Lao food sits out all day at someone’s house. It gets made and people come by and pick at it at room temperature. A real Lao party everything is just out until its gone. People here might look at that like it’s a problem, but that’s just how Lao people do it, and we don’t get sick either.”
On the other side of the scale is the dish larb diep, which is a raw beef or water buffalo salad similar to beef tartar. It’s a great way to utilize the tenderloin of a very fresh animal. Aging meat isn’t a typical Lao practice, so much as it is here. Often, the same night as the slaughter the animal is divided up, cooked into a variety of dishes, and made into any salted preserves, often beside a fire. “I remember when we were growing up all of our dad’s got together to get a cow from a farmer. They went, picked out their cow, agreed on the price, and had it killed right there. They built a fire right in the farmer’s field, burning the hair off the skin and making it into jerky, making larb right there while they cut it up.”
Personally, I don’t know many farmers like the one in Charlie’s story that would be amenable to side-stepping slaughter regulations like that, but whoever you are, God bless.