For many of us fortunate enough to be able to indulge in authentic Thai food, larb (ลาบ) gai/moo is a frequent appetizer of choosing. Off the beaten path of typical American Thai choices, this spicy pork salad does an amazing job of hitting all the notes on the palate to give you a truly magical and delicious bite each and every mouthful. Ground pork (larb moo) or ground chicken (larb gai) is combined with fish sauce, toasted and ground sticky rice, sugar, culantro, Thai chili powder, mint, lime, green onions, and Thai shallots. In my adaptation below, I work with ingredients found in the typical American pantry, or those that can be acquired fairly easily in our everyday supermarkets.
As long as you have all the ingredients, this recipe is super easy to make. It’s why I desired to find a way for more people to be able to enjoy this dish at home. The harder to come by Thai ingredients could mostly be swapped out with what we have access to. The harder ones to source at lets say my local Walmart, came in the form of Thai sticky rice and Thai chiles.
For an authentic larb moo, you would toast Thai sticky rice over dry heat until it smells like popcorn and is lightly browned. Once cooled, you’d break out your mortar and pestle and grind away. The roughly ground rice powder is then added to your ground pork to give your dish crunch, and a wonderfully nutty flavor. Since I have yet to see Thai sticky rice in any supermarket, even the specialty ones I frequent, I had to find something that could work as a substitute. From all the information I was able to gather, Thai sticky rice is referred to as sweet rice or glutinous rice. While nothing I have access to would be able to fully substitute something so specific, I did find I could get away with a gluten free flour I use often or rice I have in my pantry. Bob’s Red Mill sweet rice flour or Japanese sushi rice (whole) both work in this recipe. They are of the sticky rice varieties because of their high starch content, and have sweet notes.
Starting with a flour doesn’t give you any crunch in the end recipe, but works if you are gluten free and have a bag of this in your kitchen. Whole Foods might even sell it in their bulk section. To prepare it for the recipe, I used a non-stick skillet and toasted it. Keep in mind you have to stir frequently, monitor the color, and of course be able to take it off the heat with the first hint of that popcorn smell. If you’re opting to go a bit more authentic with the crunch of pulverized rice, than sushi rice is your next best substitute for Thai sticky rice. Toast your rice in a dry skillet until you can visibly see every piece become gorgeous caramel-ly brown, and it smells like popcorn. In a real pinch you could use arborio, which is an Italian rice used in risotto and toast it similarly.
The next item you’ll absolutely need it dried Thai chiles. I found my jar in a specialty spice shop. For the price, I bought the powerful lot of them and haven’t looked back. They store great and come in handy when I run out of red pepper flakes. We like things spicy around here so a whole jar gets depleted quickly. Depending on where you shop, and what you have access to locally will all depend on how you get your hands on these. You don’t need many! One option you could more easily take advantage of is heading over to Trader Joe’s and buying some of their Thai “Dry” Chili Paste. If all else fails you can try fresh Thai chiles which I do see from time to time in supermarkets.
With all this said, this yummy staple of Thai Isaan food is easy to make and is a brilliant combination of ingredients. One of the great flavors of Thai cuisine, it’s an appetizer to impress your friends and enjoy on weeknights for your main course.
To full plates and eating your tarte out,
- 4 tablespoons of sweet rice flour
- 6 dried Thai chiles
- 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil
- 1 pound of ground pork (chicken, beef or tofu)
- 1 teaspoon of sugar
- 2 teaspoons of fish sauce
- 1-2 limes
- 1/2 medium red onion, chopped
- 1/4 cup of loosely packed cilantro
- 15-20 leaves of mint, torn into small pieces
- 1 small head of cabbage separated into leaves
- In a dry, non-stick skillet on medium heat, toast your sweet rice flour. Continually stir until the flour takes on a light golden brown color, and smells like popcorn, about 15-20 minutes. Remove from heat.
- Using a mortar and pestle or a spice grinder, grind your Thai chiles and set aside.
- Heat a saucepan on medium heat. Add your oil. Once it heats up and evenly distributes on the bottom of the pan, add your pork. Stir and cook till done. About 10 minutes. Remove from heat.
- Starting with one tablespoon of your toasted rice flour and 1/2 teaspoon of dried, ground Thai chiles, add in your sugar, fish sauce and juice of one lime to the pork. Stir till thoroughly combined. Taste and balance as needed adding more sugar for sweetness, more lime for tartness, more fish sauce for salt and umami flavors, more toasted rice flour for nuttiness, and more ground, dried chiles for heat.
- Mix in your onions and herbs and serve immediately using cabbage as your edible bowl.
- Sweet rice flour can be substituted with sushi rice, or in a real pinch arborio rice. Starting with whole rice, use the same method of toasting the rice, waiting for the popcorn smell. Allow to cool and grind with a mortar and pestle and use as you would the sweet rice flour.
- Although larb moo is made with pork, substituting any other ground meat, tofu or even mushrooms can work really well with these flavors.
- Traditionally larb moo is served with sticky rice. You can opt out of the appetizer version using the raw cabbage, and serve with a sticky rice for a main course.