Lao Laap | ground chicken with lemongrass, shallots & fresh herbs
You know that saying January is like the Monday of Months? Well, I’m definitely feeling the blues. We even had a Drink Away the Winter Blues party at our place last weekend. Lots of friends came over, hubby made amazing cocktails, we drank, laughed, and danced away the blues. It was very fun, but now I’m back in the funk. And dreaming of past vacations…
Some years ago we spent some lovely magical days in Luang Prabang, which used to be a mountain kingdom once upon a time. It’s a sleepy ancient little town in the mountains of northern Laos, nestled between two rivers, the Mekong and the Nam Khan. It’s designated a UNESCO World Heritage Center.
When we were there, the old section had just four main streets, charming old French colonial houses, beautiful traditional Lao architecture, and monasteries everywhere you looked. We would come upon monks in their saffron robes everywhere – walking, studying, taking naps in the sun.
We stayed in a little house by the river. We would wake up, chat with people who lived on the street, have lunch at a table by the river, with the neighborhood cat hanging out with us. Well, we basically bribed her by sharing our food with her, so she would happily come over and sit on my lap while we ate long leisurely meals, drank wine, read (I discovered a writer named Colin Cotterill whose books are set in Laos – and was reading him addictively), watched the river and whatever little action or non-action happened on the road…
When we’d feel like it, we would take a little boat along the river, and it would drop us off at a deserted crumbling temple on a hill surrounded by trees and lush vegetation. The view from there was pretty amazing, so it was strange that no one went there, other than local kids who used to like to play in the courtyard. Other times, we would go sit at one of the charming cafes, or sit outside at a restaurant as dusk fell and eat a fabulous French dinner.
For lunch though, my favorite was a dish called “laap”. I had never tasted anything like it at that time, though now you can find somewhat close approximations at Thai restaurants in NY, and they call it larb. But the Thai larb is nothing as fantastic as the laap they made in Luang Prabang. And they made it everywhere, all the time. It seemed to be like their national dish.
Luckily there was a restaurant in Luang Prabang where the owner gave cooking lessons. We signed up for her cooking classes, and learned to make some delicious Lao dishes. One of which was of course laap. The recipe here is how I learned to make laap in Luang Prabang. It’s super easy, simple and healthy. It’s basically ground meat with a ton of fresh herbs which give it the most amazing flavor. In Laos they serve it as a main course with sticky rice (unlike Thai restaurants in NY which serve it as an appetizer/salad, but their version is quite different as I mentioned). So, that’s the way I like to eat it too – the laap with sticky rice, wrapped in lettuce leaf.
The laap is ready in 30 minutes, so it makes a fantastic quick meal. A few months ago, my sister and our friend visiting from Cape Town were in our neighborhood, and they called to say they were going to stop by. Since it was close to dinner time, I decided to quickly make dinner for all of us. I ran to our grocery store around the corner to get the fresh herbs and meat, and had the laap ready by the time they came over. It was so good that our South African friend asked for the recipe, and now she apparently makes it all the time in Cape Town!
When we cooked this in Luang Prabang, they didn’t have ground chicken. What we did was take chicken meat, and chop it up with a cleaver, chop chopped till it was basically ground meat. If you can’t find ground chicken in the store, you could use the same method.
To get the authentic Lao laap taste, please don’t skip the toasted sticky rice powder topping. It’s very easy to make, and it’s what gives the dish a unique nutty crunchy flavor, and elevates it to a whole another level. To get the best taste, the dish should be served right away. You can make the meat ahead of time if you need to (even though that takes less than 10 minutes), and prepare the herbs and toasted rice – but assemble the dish right before you’re ready to serve.
Lao Laap | ground chicken with lemongrass, shallots & fresh herbs
- 1 pound ground chicken (can use ground turkey or beef instead)
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- 1.5 tablespoon chicken stock paste or powder (don’t use liquid broth because then meat will get overcooked while you reduce broth)
- 2 tablespoons Thai fish sauce
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 tablespoon lime juice, from a fresh lime
- 1 large stalk of lemongrass (about 2 tablespoons), minced, with hard outer layer removed
- 1/2 cup chopped cilantro
- 1/2 cup chopped mint
- 2 scallions, green parts only, thinly sliced
- 1 shallot, thinly sliced, separated into rings
- 1/2 teaspoon crushed dried red pepper (you can use less or more depending on how spicy hot you want it)
- Small lettuce leaves (I use butterhead lettuce)
- 2.5 tablespoons sticky/glutinous white rice (plus additional sticky rice to accompany laap)
- Heat a small skillet over high heat (I use my little cast iron skillet), add the 2.5 tablespoons of sticky rice and toast. Shake skillet a few times to get even toasting, until the rice is golden brown, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat and let it cool.
- Grind the cooled rice into powder. I use mortar and pestle (you could use an electric spice or coffee grinder). Set aside to use in the last step. This toasted sticky rice powder is what gives laap its distinctive flavor (regular rice will not give the same flavor, it’ll just be gritty; if you can’t find sticky rice, you could still make this without the powder topping). If you don’t want to use all of this sticky rice powder, save the remainder in a little airtight container for when you make laap next time; the powder lasts for several months.
- In a large pan, heat oil over medium high heat. Add the ground meat and cook, stir thoroughly to break up the meat. Cook until no pink remains, about 3 minutes.
- Add the stock paste/powder to the ground meat and cook for another 5 minutes. Stir regularly to make sure meat doesn’t stick to the pan. Remove from heat.
- Add fish sauce, black pepper, and lime juice (no salt is needed because the fish sauce is salty and the stock is also salty). Stir to mix the flavors throughly.
- When you’re ready to serve, stir in the lemongrass, cilantro, mint, scallion, shallot rings, crushed red pepper, and the sticky rice powder.
- Serve with side of sticky rice and lettuce leaves. Scoop up the laap and rice in the lettuce and eat!