Fresh and funky tofu larb with cauliflower, peanuts, lime juice and lashings of fresh herbs.
Never one to let a dreary autumn (or is it early winter?) day stop me from eating salad, this week I staunchly stared down the rain and took myself to my happy place. Well, one of my happy places.
I can easily lose an hour wandering the aisles of our town's Asian supermarket. I've found all sorts of foodie treasures there, from bargain priced two litre bottles of Japanese soy sauce, to pungent chilli oils and fortune cookies (for the kids, of course!).
One of my favourite aisles is the dried mushroom aisle. It has the usual suspects like dried shiitake mushrooms, along with many more mysterious types that are unknown to me. I had a bit of a giggle this week about one bag of dried mushrooms with the brand name 'Rural Amorous Feelings'. I suspect something has been lost in translation, don't you think?
This week's treasures included a bag of organic red cargo rice from Thailand, little red skinned raw peanuts, palm sugar, fried shallots, fresh herbs and bean sprouts. I really adore red rice, which I ate a lot of during my travels in Bali, but this particular collection of goodies was destined for a Northern Thai or Lao style tofu larb.
What on earth is tofu larb?
Fair question, fair question. I've travelled in Thailand on three different occasions, and it wasn't until the third visit, combined with a trip through Laos, that I really noticed larb on the menu or considered ordering it. Once I tried it I never looked back, and now I'd say it's one of my favourite meals from that part of the world.
Larb is a type of 'meat salad' popular in Northern Thailand and Laos, usually made with ground meat, mushrooms or tofu; tons of fresh herbs; chopped chilli; lime juice; soy sauce or tamari; and a splash of fish sauce.
Larb made with crumbled tofu is really delicious, it's a light and refreshing yet quite high protein meal. I leave out the fish sauce, but you can add a little if you like it.
One very unique inclusion in the traditional larb recipe is ground toasted rice, which adds a little texture and a toasty flavour. It'll seem strange, but it's easy to make by simply stirring uncooked white rice in a dry frypan (skillet) over medium-high heat until it's a deep golden brown colour.
Once the toasted rice has cooled, it can be ground into a rough powder in a mortar and pestle, spice grinder or even your blender. If you can't be bothered, then just leave it out, but it does add a certain something to the finished dish.
Tofu larb, my way
I wanted to pack as many vegetables into this tofu larb as I could, so decided to include finely chopped cauliflower. I'd have to say it was a winning idea, as the small bits of cauliflower almost disappear into the mixture, significantly increasing the vegetable content without changing the flavour profile much at all.
The lovely little red peanuts I picked up were also a great inclusion, adding savoury crunch and extra protein. I fried them in oil until they were sizzling and golden, before adding the rest of the tofu larb ingredients to the pan.
For the fresh greens, I went with an entire bunch of coriander (cilantro), handfuls of fresh mint, a few thinly sliced makrut (kaffir) lime leaves, mung bean sprouts and sliced spring onion (scallion). You could also use Thai basil, Vietnamese mint or coriander, or lemon balm.
The greens are added to the pan at the last minute so they retain their colour and freshness. It's pretty much a situation of the more herbs the better, so be generous. The herbs wilt quickly, and what seems like a mountain of green will quickly disappear into the mix.
How to serve tofu larb
Traditionally larb is served with sticky white rice and raw vegetables, perhaps some more fresh herbs and cut lime for squeezing.
I like to keep my tofu larb on the mild side so my children will eat it, making sliced fresh chilli available at the table for the grown ups who like it hot.
Fried shallots are a welcome crispy, savoury topping, and sometimes we'll also add an extra squeeze of kecap manis (sweet Indonesian soy sauce) which is not traditional, but is very yummy indeed.
It's not essential, but I also love to serve tofu larb with crunchy iceburg lettuce leaves that can be used to package it up in tasty little mouthfuls, san choy bau style. It's fun and my girls love it too. If you don't have iceburg lettuce, just go ahead and serve the larb spooned over a bowlful of rice.
This meal is fresh, tangy with lime juice, as spicy as you like it, and really very healthy. It's a twist on the traditional recipe, but fairly true to its intent. I hope you like it.
Some other tofu recipes you might also like:
For the dressing:
- ⅓ cup lime juice freshly squeezed
- 2 tablespoon soy sauce or tamari if gluten free
- 1 tablespoon palm sugar or soft brown sugar (20g/0.7oz approximately)
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon dried chilli flakes (optional)
For the tofu larb:
- 3 tablespoon white rice (see recipe notes)
- 2 tablespoon cooking oil
- 1 teaspoon sesame oil
- ½ cup raw red skinned peanuts (or substitute any kind of peanut)
- 1 small red onion sliced
- 2 cloves garlic finely chopped or grated
- ¼ cauliflower finely chopped (about 2 ½ cups)
- 1 block firm tofu (300g/10.5oz approximately)
- 1 bunch fresh coriander (cilantro) roughly chopped
- 1 handful fresh mint roughly chopped
- 1 handful mung bean sprouts
- 2 spring onions (scallions) thinly sliced
- 3 makrut (kaffir) lime leaves very finely sliced
- Cooked red or glutinous white rice
- Iceberg lettuce
- Additional fresh herbs
- Fried shallots
- Lime wedges
- Fresh red or green chilli finely sliced (optional)
- Kecap manis (Indonesian sweet soy sauce, optional)
For the dressing:
- If using palm sugar from a block, crush or finely chop it. Mix all dressing ingredients together until sugar is dissolved. Taste for balance - the dressing should be sharp and sour, salty, a little sweet and spicy. If you like it hot, you can add more chilli flakes to the dressing. Set aside.
For the tofu larb:
- Put 3 tablespoon of uncooked rice in a dry frypan over medium-high heat. Keep the rice moving for 3-5 minutes until it turns golden to dark brown, then remove from heat. Allow to cool, then grind to a coarse powder using a mortar and pestle, spice grinder, blender or food processor. Set aside.
- Heat the cooking oil and sesame oil in a frypan (skillet) over high heat. Add peanuts and cook, stirring, for a few minutes until they start to colour and smell fragrant. Add red onion and garlic and cook briefly. Add the chopped cauliflower and cook for another minute, then use your hands to crumble the tofu into the pan. Stir to combine, cook for another minute, then pour over the dressing. Add the ground rice and the whole pile of greens - herbs, mung bean sprouts, spring onions and makrut lime leaves - to the pan at once and quickly stir through.
- Serve tofu larb fresh from the pan with your choice of rice and accompaniments. Iceberg lettuce leaves can be used to make little parcels of rice and larb to eat with your hands.
- Glutinous white rice is the best choice for the ground toasted rice, but any kind of white rice will work.
- Quantities for the fresh herbs and mung bean sprouts are estimate - use as much as you like. I like to use about twice the quantity of coriander (cilantro) to mint, and a generous handful of mung bean sprouts.
- Nutrition information is estimate and does not include serving accompaniments.