Out of all the cuisines that my family likes to eat, Isaan food is probably the most popular. It is definitely the food of choice for my husband — so much so, that whenever we get back home from abroad (a distant memory for now), he is on the phone ordering delivery from Polo Fried Chicken (usual order: one whole fried chicken, extra garlic; one som tum Thai; one bamboo shoot salad; one pork liver salad; lots of sticky rice).
But if we are really lucky, our housekeeper Somporn will be around to cook for us. While Polo Fried Chicken (aka Jae Gi) is good, Somporn’s food is really excellent. I used to think that one day if I ever moved to New Zealand I would take Somporn with me and open New Zealand’s best Isaan restaurant. Alas, we are no longer doing that and I will have to find new dreams amidst the rubble of my old ones, but at least I can still occasionally enjoy Somporn’s cooking at home.
Luckily, my in-progress cookbook gives me plenty of excuses to plumb her brain for more recipes. This one is for larb, but the Isaan kind. And I have to say (like with almost every other recipe in my book), I learned something new about Isaan larb while working on this recipe. Yes, it has roasted rice kernels and mint in it, and obviously, plenty of chilies, but I also learned that the little flourish of lime is a Bangkok thing and not part of the Isaan salad flavor profile. Instead, larb is supposed to be salty and spicy, and when Somporn cooks it for herself, she doesn’t add lime.
That’s not to say Somporn isn’t above adding some flourishes of her own. She is partial to kaffir lime leaves, so you’ll find plenty of that in the salad. I have to say, both Lauren and I have made this larb, and the lime leaf really makes it sing.
Here’s the recipe.
- 250 g minced chicken
- 3 Tbsps water
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 Tbsp fish sauce
- 1-2 Tbsps dried chili powder
- 1-2 Tbsps roasted rice powder
- 3 fresh cilantro leaves and stems, chopped
- 3 small shallots, sliced thinly (you can use red onion instead if you like)
- 3 sawtooth coriander leaves (if you have them), chopped
- 3-4 kaffir lime leaves (if you have them), sliced thinly
- juice of 1 lime to squeeze at the end (optional)
- Heat saucepan until a drop of water sizzles on it, then add 3 Tbsps water. Add minced chicken immediately after. After juices come out of the meat, the bits of chicken will stop sticking to the pan. Cook through until the pink is all gone.
- Transfer chicken (and pan juices) to a mixing bowl and add your shallots and herbs — the cilantro, sawtooth coriander and kaffir lime leaves. Add the ground rice powder and mix everything together well with a spoon.
- Add salt and fish sauce. Taste for seasoning.
- Add chili powder. Taste for seasoning.
- If you wish, add your lime juice, mix well and taste.
- Garnish with mint leaves and enjoy with sticky rice, young savoy cabbage leaves, fresh cucumber, and some cut up long beans!