Waves of heat ripple across the surface of the wok, a thin layer of oil shimmering in the late afternoon sun. Power dial turned up all the way to 10, intense heat emanated from the stove, setting a controlled conflagration ablaze right within reach. With one fell swoop, our fearless culinary guide and adept chef sent verdant handfuls of tender green vegetables flying, sizzling violently against the carbon steel, instantly searing upon contact. One minute later, the meal was served; blink and you’d miss the whole show.
The beauty of larb, otherwise written as laab, lahb, larp, laap, or lahp and prepared just as many different ways, is that it comes together in a flash, even if you don’t have the same kitchen confidence as bay area food guru Philip Gelb. Under his guidance, I encountered my favorite version of this Laotian and Thai dish, lightly charred by the kiss of the wok and brilliantly perfumed with a bouquet of fresh herbs and spices. Stunningly simple in composition yet impossibly complex in flavor, every bite was a new revelation. It’s the kind of combination that can never get boring, offering a fresh experience with every mouthful, and opportunities for different variations with every passing season.
Over the years, I’ve enjoyed many riffs on this timeless theme, sometimes with a delightful discovery of tender green asparagus or the unmistakable umami of chopped mushrooms sprinkled throughout. Even in the heat of summer, that man-made inferno is short lived, smoldering on only in flavor, and tempered by the cooling foil of crisp lettuce cups for serving. It’s well worth that fleeting moment in the fire.
By Chef Philip Gelb of Sound & Savor
2 Tablespoons Raw Brown Rice
3 Tablespoons Soy Sauce
3 Tablespoons Palm Sugar
1/4 Cup Lime Juice
8 Ounces Tempeh, Cut into 1/4-Inch Cubes
Oil for Frying
2 Tablespoons Coconut Oil
1 Stalk Fresh Lemongrass, Minced
4 Cloves Garlic, Minced
3 Teaspoons Ginger, Minced
1 – 10 Thai Chilies, Minced
1/2 Cup Green Peas, Fresh or Frozen
1/2 Medium Red Onion, Diced
1/4 Cup Fresh Thai Basil, Chopped
1/4 Cup Fresh Mint, Chopped
1/4 Cup Fresh Italian Basil, Chopped
1/4 Cup Fresh Cilantro, Chopped
Crisp Lettuce Leaves, Such as Romaine or Bibb Lettuce, to Serve
In a hot frying pan over medium-low heat, dry toast the raw rice. Shake the pan continuously for 2 minutes until the rice smells nutty. Transfer to a mortar and pestle and crush it until it’s powdery. Set aside.
Combine the soy sauce, palm sugar, and lime juice and set aside.
Deep fry the tempeh until crisp and golden brown. Set side.
Place the coconut oil in a hot wok. Add the lemongrass, garlic, ginger, and as many chilies as you like. Stir-fry for 30 seconds. Add the peas and onion and stir-fry for another minute. Add all of the fresh herbs and cook for only 10 seconds before add the soy sauce mixture. Give it just 1 more minute on the stove before turning off the heat.
Add the toasted rice powder and fried tempeh and stir everything together. Serve with lettuce leaves and let diners wrap parcels of larb with the lettuce.
Makes 2 – 3 Servings