It goes without saying that one of the biggest pleasures of living here in Thailand thus far has been getting to really discover the wonderful cuisine. Thai restaurants in the U.S., France and elsewhere in the West present a minuscule picture of this vast cuisine, often limiting their menus to phad thai, tom yum and the standard curries. So in my exploration of Bangkok's restaurants, street food stalls and mall food courts (yes food courts...some of the best food in the city can be found in them!) thus far, I've been trying to make myself be adventurous and try Thai dishes that I'm not familiar with. Sometimes it's tempting to stick with the stuff that I know and love, especially favorites like som tam (green papaya salad) and tom kha (coconut milk soup). But in general, I've been trying all kinds of unfamiliar Thai food and loving it!
One day when I was walking home from work (a habit that I've thus stopped since it seems to be getting hotter and more humid every day...a 20-minute stroll is not fun in such weather), I stumbled upon a very interesting vegetarian (and mostly vegan) restaurant called May Veggie Home, right at the beginning of Soi Thonglor (Sukhumvit Soi 55). I just wanted to browse the menu that day and had no intention of eating anything, but the charming owner of the place (her name is May "Maybe") insisted that I try something. I settled on the larb (sometimes spelled as laab), which was described as a dish of minced tofu with chili and herbs. Larb is actually a Laotian dish from the Northeastern region of Isaan next to Lao and Cambodia, where all of the best yam (salads) in Thai cuisine come from. It's traditionally made with minced pork, chicken, beef or other meat. May's veggie version with crumbled tofu was phenomenal!
In chatting with May, I learned that she is very committed to fresh, healthy food and eschews the use of MSG, fake meat products, coconut milk (too much fat - she prefers cereal milk instead) and dairy products. She uses rice bran oil rather than higher fat oils such as peanut or canola in most of her dishes, including the larb. Leaving her place, I knew that I had to replicate this dish ASAP and so picked up some rice bran oil myself. It' extracted from the germ and inner husk of rice and has an extremely high smoke point, making it the ideal oil for stir-fries, fried rice and other Asian dishes. What's more, it's supposed to improve cholesterol levels, reduce the symptoms of menopause and retain its antioxidants throughout the cooking process. Yay, rice bran oil! Since then, it's taken a prominent place in our kitchen.
May's larb also introduced me to roasted/toasted rice powder (khao khua), which is what looks like sesame seeds in her larb. As explained by our friend Leela over at 'She Simmers' (one of my favorite Thai cooking blogs), this powder gives a great nutty flavor and thickening aspect to many Thai dishes. She explains how to make it from scratch, but it's readily available over here. I picked up a little bottle in the spice aisle of a supermarket, though I would have preferred a coarser texture like May's. I'm guessing that she makes hers from scratch and that I should do the same!
Stay tuned for a review of May's restaurant, and thanks to her for introducing me to these interesting ingredients and to larb. It's simple, delicious and refreshing with the lime juice, shallots and fresh coriander and mint. A perfect salad, side dish or snack! Try it today, and be sure to double or triple the recipe if you're looking to make a good amount (the instructions here are for just two portions).
LARB (MINCED TOFU SALAD)
200 grams tofu
1 teaspoon rice bran or canola oil
1/3 cup thinly sliced shallots (a handful of small shallots or 2-3 big shallots)
2 cloves garlic, minced
Juice of 1 lime
1 tablespoon fish sauce (nam pla) or light soy sauce
1 tablespoon palm or brown sugar
1-2 small Thai bird's eye chilies (phrik khi nu), minced (deseeded if you don't want heat)
1 tablespoon roasted/toasted rice powder (khao khua)
1/4 cup fresh coriander, chopped
1/4 cup fresh mint leaves, chopped
2 small or 1 big shallot, thinly sliced for garnish (optional)
Lime wedge, for garnish
1. Drain the tofu and place between a few paper towels in order to absorb as much moisture as possible. Set aside for 15 minutes.
2. Warm the oil in a pan and add the shallots and garlic. Lightly saute.
3. Using your fingers, crumble the tofu. Add it to the pan and cook until warmed and just barely beginning to take on a golden color (about 8-10 minutes depending on your stove...ours is electric and takes a long time).
4. In the meanwhile, mix the lime juice, fish/soy sauce, sugar and minced chili in a bowl or mortar and pestle. Stir well.
5. Once the tofu has finished cooking, add this sauce and the roasted rice powder to the pan. Cook for an additional minute and quickly remove from heat.
6. After the larb has cooled to room temperature, mix in the chopped coriander and mint. Serve with additional sliced shallot (if desired - my hubby doesn't like the taste of raw shallot whereas I love it) and a wedge of lime. You can serve the larb in a bowl or on cabbage or lettuce leaves for a nice presentation.