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Spicy Laab - Where Minced Meat Comes Alive

THAI FOOD is remarkable for its simplicity, for once all the preparations are complete, the dish can be assembled in minutes. The effect can be stunning as the flavours have only a short time to mingle and blend, and so retain their own distinct characters. Some of the ingredients are familiar to the western palate, yet some are so unusual that it may be hard to know from where a particular flavour comes.

Such a dish is the simple meat salad called Laab which is such an integral part of the diet of the Thai people of Lao descent, or those living as neighbours of the modern-day Lao PDR. It is one of the basic relish dishes which the people of the north and northeast use to ennoble their staple food, Khao Nieo or sticky rice. Although it is a simple farmers' dish, it has great popularity with migrant workers who have moved to the cities, and also has an up-market profile amongst the urban well-to-do.

Laab can be created with almost any kind of minced meat, not just the everyday beef, pork or chicken from the market, but also the flesh of small wild animals trapped by hunters in the forests. It is considered a salad, but a hot and spicy one, where the sharpness of freshly-squeezed lime juice combines with the saltiness of fish sauce and the fiery heat of chilli powder. Yet the ingredients which set a Laab apart, which distinguish it from all the other wonderful spicy salads (Yam) of Thai cuisine, are roasted rice and shredded fresh mint leaves.

The ground roasted rice grains impart a wonderful smoky taste to the dish which combines magically with the chest-clearing aromatic wholesomeness of the freshly released mint oils.

The dish varies in its taste and balance, with the better-known northeastern version, or Laab Esan, typically featuring cooked minced meat, while the northern cousin is based around meat which may only have been cooked by its exposure to lime juice. Either preparation is equally delicious and Laab is something that every visitor should try, or risk missing out on a culinary treat. Of the many types of the dish available, the most common are Laab Neua, made from beef, Laab Moo, using cooked minced pork, Laab Gai, where chicken is the base, Laab Moo Yang, with charcoal grilled pork, and Laab Wun Sen, featuring Thai vermicelli and minced pork.

Many visitors become lifelong converts to Laab, once they have tried it, and fortunately it is not a difficult dish to prepare in western kitchens. To make enough for 3 or 4 people, roast 2 tablespoons of uncooked rice in a small, dry frying pan, together with dry red chillies to taste (if you can't get chilli powder), until browned Grind the rice and chillies finely together. Add these ingredients to about 450 grams of raw or lightly fried minced meat of your choice. Squeeze in 2 limes or a lemon. Add 3 stalks of finely minced lemon grass (if you can find it), a finely chopped large red onion, about 20 shredded mint leaves and 2 tablespoons of fish sauce. If you can't find fish sauce, soak an anchovy fillet overnight in 2 tablespoons of salted water. Mix it all together with your hands and serve on a bed of lettuce, and sprinkle mint on top. Decorative effects can be added with carved or sliced cucumbers and split chilli or spring onion flowers made by soaking the cut ends in iced water until they curl.

Don't delay, try Laab today. You won't be sorry if you do.


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