Spicy Laotian Beef Salad (Lab, Larb Recipe) : Bold Flavors of Laos

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by Katherine

Historian, researcher and writer, Katherine currently lives and works in Mumbai, India and travels widely throughout Asia. You can read further about her discoveries and adventures on her blog, Mumbai, Masala and More.

Much of Laos’ culinary culture seems to take place outside.  Everywhere you go things are being boiled, stewed and sizzled in outdoor stalls.  A crepe maestro would be deftly rolling out the thinnest dough creation in the world over a giant pan (France’s colonization of Laos has brought baguettes and European-style pastries into popular usage).  Eating is also communal; in the street, you can see people sitting around a meal served at the ka toke, the traditional low circular platform made of rattan where all the courses are brought out and eaten together.

Lao cuisine is distinguished by its pungent, spicy notes; unlike its milder Vietnamese and Cambodian cousins, its generous use of chilli peppers brings a fiery basenote to most of its dishes.  This quality brings it closer to the cuisine of neighboring Thailand–Laos’ onetime conqueror and arch-nemesis.  In fact, most of the specialized ingredients for its dishes, such as fish sauce, can be bought in Thai food stores.  However, Lao cooking is set apart by its generous usage of fresh herbs, especially those with a sharp taste–heaps of them fill the outdoor vegetable markets with a bracing fragrance.  Galangal, lemongrass and kaffir lime are widely used and, among the fruit, it is the acrid green papaya that is the main ingredient in the country’s most popular salad.

Meat is another one of the groundstones of Lao cuisine, as is seen in its most famous recipe, Lab (also spelled larb, laap, larp, laab), a celebratory dish that is commonly made to mark a housewarming, the birth of a baby or New Year’s.  Beef rules the roost, so to speak, and is considered to form an especially satisfying contrast to the piquant taste of the herbs.

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Spicy Laotian Beef Salad (Lab, Larb Recipe)

Serve 4 as a side dish or appetizer; 2 as a main dish

Victoria’s Note: As I was testing Katherine’s recipe to take the accompanying photos, I found myself addicted to lab. The flavors are bold and explosive, with a wonderfully refreshing sensation. I already envision making it often during the sweltering summer months; although, eating it by the fireplace picnic style has also been quite enjoyable. Lab can be made with chicken or pork but beef is most commonly used in Laos. An essential component to the dish is khao khua, a traditional Lao roasted rice powder, which is very easy to make. It adds a crunchy, nutty note to the salad, which serves as a delicious foil to the bright, herbal flavors of the dish. Traditionally, lab is eaten as a mixed salad with garnishes and some sticky rice on the side. Feel free to adjust the amount of chilli peppers to your taste.

1lb ground or minced beef (or chicken, pork)
4 shallots, 2 sliced in thin rounds and 2 minced
5 spring onions, sliced in thin rounds
2 garlic cloves, sliced in thin rounds
2 hot chilli peppers, sliced in thin rounds (or to taste)
1 tsp sugar
1 Tbsp fish sauce, or more to taste (see note below)
salt, pepper, lime juice to taste
2 Tbsp khao khua, roasted rice powder (see note below)

Salad Garnishes:

Herbs: sliced spring onions, mint, coriander leaves/cilantro (a handful of each)
Lettuce leaves
Sliced string beans (optional, best to use tender, summer variety)
Sliced cucumber
Hot chilli peppers, sliced in rounds, to taste
1 lime, sliced

Heat one tablespoon of oil in a frying pan, then add shallots sliced in rounds (reserve minced shallots for later,) garlic, spring onions and chili peppers. When they have browned, add the beef, sugar, and fish sauce.  Once the beef is well cooked, add more salt, lime juice and adjust the seasonings. It should be well-seasoned and richly flavored. Set aside and let cool.

Toss beef with herbs, minced shallots and roasted rice powder. Serve with garnishes on a side.

Ingredient Notes:

Fish Sauce—is a condiment that is derived from fish that undergoes a process of fermentation. It has a rich, umami flavor and high-quality brands smell savory and meaty, rather than pungent and fishy. My favorite brands are Vietnamese Three Crabs and Thai Squid which are widely available from Asian grocery stores and online. Here is a great guide for buying fish sauce from one of my favorite cookbook authors, Andrea Nguyen.

Roasted Rice Powder (khao khua)–adds a pleasant nutty taste to the dish. To make it, put 2 tablespoons of rice into a frying pan without oil and toast, stirring frequently, over medium-low heat until it turns brown and smells well toasted. Remove from the stove and crush into powder. Can be made in larger quantities and stored in an air-tight container.

Laos1 Laos4

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Photography of Laos by Katherine (market scenes at Luang Prabang, the medieval Lao capital), of salad by Bois de Jasmin.

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20 Comments

  • Olfactoria: Sounds wonderful! We cook a lot of asian dishes, I will make this one soon, maybe even tonight! Thank you, Katherine for that interesting post and beautiful pictures. February 17, 2011 at 6:38am Reply

  • Michael: This was a bright, colorful start to my morning! I can just imagine these sizzling crepes you are describing. Although I traveled in Vietnam and Thailand, I’ve never made it to Laos. Thanks again for a colorful read. February 17, 2011 at 8:22am Reply

  • Susanna: Such an interesting, well-written post! I loved the photos too, especially of the bottom one. Is it a monk feeding that little monkey? February 17, 2011 at 8:40am Reply

  • Martha1108: This is such a fascinating blog. There is always something interesting! Thank you. February 17, 2011 at 8:51am Reply

  • sweetlife: Welcome Katherine, and thank you so much for this excellent and very tempting post! I’m always looking for ways to work these kinds of flavors in my kitchens. I’ll be checking out your blog posthaste. February 17, 2011 at 10:15am Reply

  • sweetlife: Just one kitchen. Man, got to stop commenting before I’ve drunk all my tea… February 17, 2011 at 10:16am Reply

  • Rita: Katherine, welcome! I very much enjoyed your first post, the photos and the recipe.

    Is the salad supposed to be very spicy? When you made it how many chillies did you use? February 17, 2011 at 10:54am Reply

  • Marina: Oh the salad sounds Wonderful! February 17, 2011 at 11:24am Reply

  • RobK: I don’t eat meat, but I wonder if I can use tofu instead of meat? The post really got me curious about Laos, so I look forward to more of your posts. I’ve never been to Asia, maybe someday. February 17, 2011 at 11:58am Reply

  • Heidi: Oh, thank you! I love larb, and now I have a good recipe– off to find fish sauce today (we have tons of SE Asian groceries in Seattle and there’s usually a whole aisle devoted to fish sauce)! February 17, 2011 at 12:48pm Reply

  • Victoria: I understand that Laotian food is quite fiery, but of course, you can adjust the amount of chilli peppers to your taste. The couple of times that I made this recipe, I used 2 serrano peppers for sauteing meat and then perhaps 2 more to garnish the salad. That made for a pleasantly spicy salad, but I admit that I love very spicy food, so 4 peppers might be too much for others. The nice thing is that the amounts can be adjusted to your own taste as you eat the salad. February 17, 2011 at 12:57pm Reply

  • Victoria: Heidi, if you can find Thai basil at your SE Asian store, you can use it too. It adds such a nice, bright spicy flavor. I love Asian herbs, even the Vietnamese fish mint, which tastes like aldehydes and anchovies. February 17, 2011 at 1:03pm Reply

  • Victoria: It is very delicious, I can testify to that! 🙂 February 17, 2011 at 8:46pm Reply

  • Victoria: I am sure that Katherine can offer some input on this, but I guess that it can work too. February 17, 2011 at 8:47pm Reply

  • aotearoa: It’s hard to say which I look forward to and salivate over the most here – the beautifully written perfume reviews or the wonderful food recipes. We eat a lot of Thai food and the mix of sweet/salt/sour is always fresh and delicious. Summer here and Larb is on the menu. The firmer tofu has worked well for me, if that’s any help
    Can I say again how good it is to have your blog to enjoy on a regular basis! February 18, 2011 at 1:54pm Reply

  • Victoria: Thank you so much! I am glad that you are enjoying these diversions from the reviews.
    This salad is quite addictive, and since the Lent starts soon, I think that I might also give it a try by substituting firm tofu for meat. February 18, 2011 at 2:53pm Reply

  • Katherine: Indeed–this dish is called larb tofu. The tofu is fried first so that it is crispy on the outside and spongy and soft on the inside. February 27, 2011 at 7:29am Reply

  • Katherine: Thank you very much! February 27, 2011 at 7:30am Reply

  • Katherine: Thank you so much, Susanna! That was indeed a monk–a teenage novice at one of the monasteries in Luang Prabang–feeding a little monkey he found the other day on the premises. February 27, 2011 at 7:31am Reply

  • Cody Evans: My best friend’s dad makes this. He’s from Laos, and calls it Laap. Instead of ground beef, he braises a lean roast on the grill until cooked to a very rare doneness (cool red center with light to medium char on outside). He then slices very thin bite-sized pieces, almost like chipped beef. Then he makes the sauce from fish sauce, oyster sauce, seasoning sauce(can only find at Asian market), cilantro, mint, shallot, garlic, (Thai)chili pepper, as well as lemon and lime juice. The acidity takes care of the final doneness of the beef. He serves in a large bowl with baskets of sticky rice(sweet rice) for everyone to pick at. Probably the best dish I have ever tasted… September 4, 2013 at 12:03pm Reply

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