Pork salad! If these two words make you perk up at your desk, please read on.
[But before I begin, an apology first to anyone who has used the "Contact Me" form in the past couple of months. It had been broken for a while before a vigilant reader got a hold of me through Facebook and I realized this error. (And I've always wondered, when using contact forms myself on other websites over the years, if messages just disappeared into a black hole because of coding errors.) So I got rid of the form, but still want to hear from you guys! From now on, just email me at appetiteforchina (at) gmail (dot) com with any questions or comments.]
Now on to the salad. I first learned how to make larb mu (also spelled laap mu, larb moo, laap moo, etc.) from my friend Sandra, who taught cooking classes with me at the Hutong in Beijing. When we met, she already had already built an impressive globetrotting life, having lived and worked (mostly for NGOs) in Haiti, Vietnam, Taiwan, and mainland China, with Afghanistan soon to follow. In her spare time she made a habit of sniffing out the best local restaurants and street food wherever she was, and developed a ravenous curiosity for ingredients and techniques. Lucky for me, she had also spent a good amount of time traveling in Thailand and Laos, where this salad comes from (it originated in Laos and spread to Northern Thailand). After Sandra taught her Thai cooking class at the Hutong and made 4 pounds' worth of larb mu, I couldn't stop talking about the salad for weeks.
Over the years it's become an standby for whenever I crave Northern Thai food and want it fast.
Larb mu, though eaten as an appetizer at room temperature, isn't the type of salad that is dominated by leafy greens. It's actually mostly ground pork, sautéed until done and tossed with fish sauce, chili sauce, sugar, and fresh lime juice. (Is your mouth watering already?) The only green things present are herbs - mint and cilantro. But really, you have to taste this to become a believer. I would take this over a Caesar salad any time.
One important component to larb mu that many recipes leave out is toasted rice powder. It doesn't look or sound all that significant, but adds a really lovely nuttiness to your salad. The lucky few of us who live near a Thai grocery store can just buy it, but, as I discovered this week, you can also easily make it at home. What you do is take a handful of uncooked jasmine, long grain, or sticky rice and toast it in a dry skillet for about 3 minutes, stirring often. When your rice turns golden brown, just remove it from the pan and grind it up with a mortar and pestle or in a spice or coffee grinder.
The recipe I've included below includes my proportions of the seasonings and herbs; feel free to play around. If you're not too into pork, try this same recipe with chicken to make larb gai, Thai ground chicken salad. The traditional way to eat this is wrapped in cabbage or lettuce. But for lazy weeknight meals, I love reheating the leftovers, still heavily infused with chili and fish sauce and lime, and spooning it over rice. If you happen to have a Singha or Beerlao or just about any lager lying around, by all means pop it open.
Thai Ground Pork Salad (Larb Mu)
- 1 pound ground pork
- 1 tablespoon peanut or vegetable oil
- 3 tablespoons uncooked jasmine, long-grain, or sticky rice, (or 3 tablespoons store-bought toasted rice powder)
- 1 tablespoon fish sauce
- 1 to 2 teaspoons chili sauce
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- Juice from 1 small lime
- 1 shallot, thinly sliced
- 1 or 2 scallions, chopped
- 1 small handful cilantro
- 1 small handful mint
- 3 or 4 dried red chilis for garnish (optional)
- 1/2 head Chinese cabbage or green lettuce for serving, separated into leaves
- Heat the cooking oil in a wok or large skillet over medium heat. Cook the pork for 3 to 4 minutes, breaking up larger clumps with a spatula, until no trace of pink remains. Set aside to cool.
- If you’re making the toasted rice powder at home, heat another skillet over medium heat. Toast the uncooked rice in the dry skillet, stirring every few seconds to avoid burning, until the rice is golden brown and has a nutty fragrance. Remove from the heat and pound the rice with a mortar until it turns into a powder (or use a spice grinder or coffee grinder.)
- Once the pork has cooled for at least 5 minutes, stir in the toasted rice powder, fish sauce, chili sauce, sugar and lime juice. Add freshly ground pepper to taste. You can also add a bit of salt if you’d like but I find the fish sauce already adds just the right amount of saltiness. Toss the pork with shallots, scallions, cilantro and mint.
- Transfer to a large plate and garnish with optional dried red chilis. For an appetizer, serve with cabbage or lettuce leaves and wrap up a leaping spoonful of the pork salad into the leaves. For an entree, serve with white rice or sticky rice. Either way, extra lime wedges for squeezing over the salad is highly encouraged.