This is a vibrant and bangin’ good meal. Salt, sour, spicy and sweet, it’s Laos on a plate and one of those meals that’ll have you mumbling “can’t talk, eating, mmm, omigod, delicious, mmmphh, more, yum…”
My last recipe for coconut and lime creme brulee sent me on trip down memory lane, thinking about the amazing food I ate last time I visited South East Asia. Truly I don’t think I could ever travel somewhere where the food didn’t excite me.
There have been times when i’ve felt like i’ve kinda seen it all, and eaten it all, when it comes to food. I know this is laughable in a world as huge and complex as ours, but still. Hear me out.
A week in the moody and languid Luang Prabang, Laos, just about blew my mind in terms of food. The food here still tasted of South East Asia, but somehow different – different herbs, more fragrant, lighter and altogether unique. It was the most excited i’ve been about food in years.
One of the meals which has stuck in my mind is tofu larb. Larb is a sort of ‘meat salad’ popular in Laos and northern Thailand. It’s usually made with pork or chicken mince, but also works well with tofu, mushrooms, and I’ve eaten a version done with white fish.
It’s impossible to throw too many herbs at this dish. Coriander, mint, Thai or regular basil, kaffir lime leaves, the more the better. Ground toasted rice adds texture and a unique flavour. I’ve added mushrooms and sprouts too.
Don’t be put off by all the ingredients here. There is a bit of chopping and preparation to do but the actual cooking time is less than 10 minutes. If you have friends coming over, get it all done beforehand then you can easily throw it together over a vino while you’re chatting. Serious.
This meal is as much about the other bits and pieces as it is about the larb. Serve with sticky rice, crispy lettuce for wrapping, salad bits and pieces, nuts and crispy shallots, spicy sauces, lime for squeezing. It’s messy, fun and lip smacking delicious.
For the sauce:
- 1/3 cup lime juice
- 2 tbsp soy sauce, or tamari if you're gluten free
- 1-2 tbsp brown sugar, I used half a lump of palm sugar
- 1-2 tsp fish sauce (optional - include it if you like it, and you're not vegan)
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/4 tsp chilli flakes
For the table:
- Sticky rice
- Crisp lettuce leaves, washed and separated (baby cos is perfect, iceberg works too)
- Shredded carrot
- Cherry tomatoes
- Roasted peanuts
- Crispy shallots, (store bought)
- Lime wedges
- Sliced red and green chillis
- Sriracha or other chilli sauce
- Kecap manis, (not traditional but excellent if you have it)
For the tofu:
- 1 block of firm tofu
- 1 tbsp plain cooking oil
- 1 tsp sesame oil
- 2 cloves garlic, crushed
- 1 red onion, sliced
- 1 cup mushrooms, diced
- 2 spring onions, sliced
- Large handful mung bean sprouts
- Large bunch of coriander, roughly chopped
- Large bunch of mint, roughly chopped
- 3 tbsp uncooked rice
- Mix sauce ingredients together and taste for balance. It should be sharp and sour, salty, spicy and a little sweet. If you like it hot, add more chilli flakes to the sauce. I like to keep the sauce mild so that each person can adjust their own heat with sliced chillis and hot sauce at the table. Set the sauce aside until you cook the tofu.
- Toasting your rice will definitely seem weird but it works out fine. Put 3 tbsp of uncooked rice in a dry frypan over medium heat. Keep the rice moving until it goes golden to dark brown, then remove from heat. It'll take 3-5 minutes. Let it cool, then grind it into a coarse powder. I used my coffee grinder, which was really fast, but you could also use a blender, food processor or mortar and pestle.
- To cook the tofu, heat cooking oil and sesame oil in a frypan over a high heat. Add garlic, red onion and mushrooms and cook briefly.
- Using your hands, crumble the block of tofu into the pan. Stir and cook for a few minutes until everything is really hot. Add the sauce you made earlier to the pan and stir through.
- Dump the whole pile of spring onions, mung beans and herbs into the pan at once and quickly stir through.
- Stir through the ground toasted rice and serve.
- Serves 2-4, depending on your greed.