Chicken larb and purple sticky rice

When I first started researching my cookbook, I decided I wanted to include as many different Asian Pacific American communities as possible. This hasn’t always been easy as there are some communities I am not very well connected with. Case in point: the Laotian community. Fortunately, a contact put me in touch with a Lao gentleman who is a community leader and a deacon at Our Lady of Mount Virgin Catholic Church in Seattle’s Central District where the local Lao community gathers for mass every Sunday. I showed up one Sunday morning and he introduced me to two ladies who agreed to show me how to make some of their traditional dishes. They belonged to two distinct Lao hill tribes–Yi Thao was Hmong and Keo Choulapha was Khmu.

When I told Yi I wanted her to show me how to cook some family recipes, she wrinkled her nose and said the food her parents ate was very bland. “Chicken boiled with vegetables, tofu, pumpkin grown in the garden boiled with water … very healthy food,” she said. It was obvious she equated healthy with tasteless. After I circumvented egg rolls (the Hmong are descendants of an ancient ethnic group that lived in China before migrating to Southeast Asia in the early 19th century, so egg rolls may not be too far off but I wanted something a little closer to typical Lao cuisine), we finally settled on chicken larb.

The following week, I met with Yi, a young mother of 4 kids ranging in age from 15 to 24. Yi is what I would call a “chili padi” (those tiny Thai bird’s eye chilies that are so spicy they could make a grown man cry), a bundle of energy packed into her petite 5-foot frame. The moment I arrived, she ushered me into her kitchen and started bustling around doing a dozen things all at once.

The first thing Yi did was pop a small skillet onto the stove and pour sticky rice grains into it. She was dry roasting the grains to make roasted rice powder, an essential ingredient in chicken larb (also spelled laap, larp or laab.) Roasted rice powder is available at Asian grocery stores but Yi prefers to make it herself since it’s so easy. Besides, the hardest part of the process was her husband’s job–pounding the toasted rice in a mortar and pestle. All she had to do is sift the powder to get the smoothest grains. Aah … the beauty of delegation.

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Larb is the unofficial national dish of Laos and is also very popular in neighboring Thailand. You’ve probably seen this Lao meat salad on the menu at Thai restaurants. Larb can be made with chicken, beef, duck, pork or even fish, and some prefer to eat the meat raw (not the poultry of course). It is usually served at room temperature with sticky rice.

Sticky rice is a staple for Lao people and is traditionally eaten out of a woven basket, with fingers. Hence to keep fingers clean and rice out of the various dishes, the dishes are not [excessively] wet or oily which explains why Yi’s larb recipe uses no oil and very lean chicken breast meat.

I have never observed the Lao way of making sticky rice but I dare venture a guess that Yi’s method was a little unorthodox. First, she boiled half a (14 oz) package of black sticky rice in a pot of water until the liquid turned a murky grayish purple. After straining the black sticky rice (and to my surprise, throwing it away), she soaked the white sticky rice in the black sticky rice “juice” for about half an hour. “Just for the color and to make pretty,” she explained. “You can mix white and black rice together but I don’t like it.” The resulting rice was dyed an attractive purplish hue.

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Then she steamed the rice in a special sticky rice steaming basket and pot set which looks like an inverted cone-shaped hat balanced on a spitoon.

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Traditionally, the basket is woven from bamboo but Yi prefers one that is made from plastic. Halfway through the steaming process (about 15 minutes), she removed the basket and in one deft movement she flipped the rice mound upside down and replaced the basket on its base to continue steaming.

In between soaking and flipping rice, Yi was also chopping herbs for the larb. In no time, she threw the larb together and dinner was ready.

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Before we started eating, Yi showed me how to mould the sticky rice into a ball and pick up some of the larb. Somehow or another, I managed to get everything into my mouth without spilling and embarrassing myself.  

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Chicken larb (Lao meat salad)

Yi usually buys lean chicken breast meat and cuts out all the fat before mincing it herself (with a cleaver!) because she finds ground chicken often too fatty. But if you don’t fancy all that work, use the leanest ground chicken breast you can find. All the herbs below are available at Asian grocery stores and each brings with it a unique flavor to the dish. But I have seen larb recipes using only cilantro, spearmint and green onions as greens, so if you can’t find them all, the dish will still taste good even if not totally authentic. To identify some of the lesser known herbs like saw leaf or rau rahm, food writer Andrea Nguyen has a great reference page on her web site: Vietworldkitchen.com.

Time: 40 minutes (mostly prep work)
Makes: 4 servings

1-1/2 pounds lean ground chicken breast
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon MSG (yes, many Asian home cooks still use it but it’s totally optional)
1/3 cup roasted rice powder (available in Asian markets or you can make your own by roasting raw rice in a dry skillet over the stove till brown. Then grind in a coffee grinder or mortar and pestle)
1/2 cup cilantro stems and leaves, reserve half the leaves for garnish and chop the remaining stems and leaves finely
4 green onions, cut the green tops into “O’s and slice the bottom 2 inches thinly lengthwise for garnish
1/2 cup saw leaf herb (also called cilantro or Mexican coriander), chopped finely
1/2 cup spearmint leaves, torn into small pieces
6 kaffir limes leaves, chopped finely
1/2 cup rau rahm (also called Vietnamese coriander), chopped finely
6 bird’s eye chilies, chopped (or to taste)
2-inches unpeeled galangal, minced
2 stalks lemongrass, outer skin removed, trimmed, and minced
1 teaspoon crushed dried red pepper
2 teaspoons fish sauce
Juice of 1 large lime (about 2 tablespoons)

Heat a medium wok or skillet until it is very hot and add the chicken and stir fry without any oil. The chicken will stick to the pan at first, but its juices will come out and the meat will loosen. Add salt and MSG if using. Stir fry for about 6 to 7 minutes until chicken is no longer pink and fully cooked but not too brown. Transfer meat to a big bowl and let cool for about 5 minutes.

Add roasted rice powder, herbs and spices, crushed dried red pepper, fish sauce and lime juice. Mix well and taste. You should taste a nice balance of heat (chilies and red pepper), tartness (lime juice) and salt (fish sauce). Don’t be afraid to add more of anything to get the flavor balance just right. Garnish with reserved cilantro and green onions and serve with sticky rice.