Larb nuaa gae (Minced lamb salad)
Last week I went to Little Serow, a basement restaurant run by the same people who own the esteemed Komi. Little Serow serves up Isan cuisine, from the northern countryside provinces of Thailand. I’d had Isan before at Zabb Elee in New York, which offered a brusque and unforgivingly spicy introduction to the chili and and citrus laden food. As a heat-loving fiend, I knew I had to try it again in DC, and was curious to see what sort of refinement Johnny Monis could add.
At $45 for an 8 course menu, it was a steal. Although none of the dishes even began to approach the level of spiciness of Zabb Elee, everything was still bright, pungent, and flavorful. My only criticism would be that everything was dominated by acidic, citrusy flavors, which while seemingly a key component of the Isan palette, can get a little repetitive in a multi course meal.
The experience of course got me wanting to try creating some of the recipes at home. The highlight of the meal at Little Serow was definitely the Larb Pla Duk, a salad of crispy catfish with herbs. It seems that larb is the most well known Isan dish, and often appears on the menu at conventional Thai restaurants. Like other Thai dishes, it can be made with any number of meats. I decided to try it with lamb, although duck, pork, and fish are common alternatives. I also added some roasted eggplant, which gave the mixture a nice, soft consistency similar to tartare. I might try mixing ground meat with eggplant again in the future in order to take advantage of this wonderful texture.
My attempt at this dish was achieved by combining advice from several recipes. Here’s a description more or less of how I went about it. Although I’m sure it’s not entirely authentic, it uses ingredients that can be found in any grocery store.
2 large eggplants
1/2 cup jasmine rice
1 tbsp. neutral oil, plus extra for brushing
1 head of garlic, minced
Fish sauce, to taste
2 lbs ground meat, fish, or tofu
2 tbsp. rice vinegar
1/2 tbsp. palm sugar (probably can substitute a spoonful of white sugar)
1 bunch scallions, thinly sliced
2 tbsp. thinly sliced bird’s eye chiles (for medium spiciness, use more or less to taste)
1 stalk of lemongrass, meaty bottom third only, thinly sliced
1/2 a red onion, chopped
Juice of 4 medium limes
2/3 cup packed mint leaves
1 cup packed cilantro leaves
1/3 cup packed dill sprigs
Preheat oven to 400˚ F. Cut eggplants in half lengthwise. Brush flesh with a little bit of oil and place on a baking sheet. Roast in oven until browned and soft, about 30 minutes. Remove and let cool. Peel off skins and place flesh in a food processor, pulsing until pureed.
Heat a wok or frying pan over medium heat. Place rice in pan and toast until lightly browned and opaque, stirring occasionally. Empty rice from pan and let cool. Grind rice in a mortar and pestle or spice grinder until powdery and set aside
In a large wok or frying pan, heat the oil over medium high heat. Add the minced garlic and a splash of fish sauce. Stir and let fry until fragrant, about a minute. Add the meat, rice vinegar, and another healthy splash of fish sauce, stirring to combine. Cook meat until just brown, then add more fish sauce to taste.
Add palm sugar, scallions, chiles, lemongrass, and onion and stir. Allow to cook until onions are soft, about 8 minutes. Turn off heat and stir in rice powder. Next, stir in the eggplant puree, then the lime juice, and then finally the herbs. Taste the mixture and add more fish sauce or lime juice if necessary.
Leave the mixture to sit for about 30 minutes, allowing the flavors to combine and settle. Serve atop lettuce leaves, or with jasmine or sticky rice. Garnish with extra herbs.