This is the dish that got innards into my kitchen - laab khua, or northern Thai-style cooked laab (pictured upper left and opening our previous post).
Dave and I were introduced to laab khua a couple years back, while in northern Thailand researching an article for the Chicago Tribune. On previous trips to the area we'd eaten well but hadn't really taken to sticky rice and northern flavors, which seemed almost too intense (many northerners have described their cuisine to us as kem-kon, which might be translated as 'concentrated and intense'), unlightened as they are by the lime juice that appears in so many Isaan and central Thai dishes.
Well, something clicked for us on that Chicago Tribune foray. After just a couple of days in Chiang Mai we found ourselves waking with an urge for sticky rice and strong-flavored nam prik with fresh and blanched veggies and rich, meaty dishes like gaeng om and laab. In Nan we learned to make pork laab at the home of a local we'd become friends with on a previous trip. Her cousin, a real estate developer by day and reknowned cook (within Nan town, that is) during off hours, comandeered the kitchen and whipped up a feast that included jaw pakkat (pork and greens soup lightly soured with tamarind), 'red eye' nam prik, and both fresh and cooked laab. It was a spectacular meal.
When we got back to Kuala Lumpur I had to test recipes for the article - usually my very least favorite food writing-related task. But making (and eating) those northern Thai dishes was most enjoyable; we never tired of the flavors.
I submitted the laab khua recipe below with my article. My editor at CT, deeming it a bit too adventurous for her readers, elected not to run it, staying instead with 'safer' options like dtam makhya (smoky pounded eggplant dip) and gaeng khae gai (coconut milk-free chicken and vegetable curry). I don't blame her - the dish probably does include a few too many challenging bits for the average American cook and eater.
But it's soooo tasty! This is the dish that propelled me to the wet market in search of a pork seller who could provide the freshest pig liver, heart, stomach, and skin. Yes - this is the dish that got me, finally, after many years cooking pretty adventurously, to tackle offal. I don't make it often (it's extremely rich, after all), but whenever I do I'm thankful for that trip to northern Thailand that banished my squeamishness. I'd urge anyone who thinks they could never eat beef or pig liver (or other bits) to give this a try. At the very least, toss in some chicken livers. The strong spices need that balance.
Laab Khua Muu (Northern Style Pork Laab)
(Serves 6-8 with a couple other dishes; recipe can be halved)
This is a pork laab, but you could easily substitute beef and beef parts (or even chicken, but use a lighter hand with the spices). I haven't included blood - if you choose to, figure on about a quarter cup or so, and stir it in with the meat - or pig skin, both of which our hostess in Nan added to the mix.
This laab incorporates a moist spice paste, and the end result is relatively dry. Some laab cooks make a much simpler version by simply stirring ground (and, presumably, roasted) spices and chilies into chopped meat and then cooking that with blood. Some cooks add water so that the laab sits in a little pool of 'soup'. Laab khua seems to me a very personal thing; make it how you want it - if you like it hot, use more chilies. If you want less spice flavor and more emphasis on the meatiness, halve the amounts.
And if you just can't countenance innards, make it without (but you should probably reduce the amount of spices because you won't have the innard richness to balance them). Sticky rice is the authentic accompaniment (but steamed rice will do), along with a generous mound of fresh vegetables.
And don't be put off by the recipe's length - you could always toast and grind chilies and spices ahead of time, or even make the spice paste a day in advance and pop it in the fridge.
250 grams of pork skin and organ meats, such as stomach, heart, liver, kidney (it’s preferable to include at least some liver)
500 grams pork, roughly chopped
10 plump cloves garlic, unpeeled
3 Tbsp vegetable oil
5 red-skinned shallots, unpeeled
1 handful dried red chilies
3 slices galangal root
1 Tbsp coriander seeds
5 long peppers
1 cardamom pod (preferably white)
½ whole nutmeg
½-inch piece cinnamon stick
2 ribs mace or 1/8 tsp ground mace
10 black peppercorns
1 tbsp Sichuan peppercorns
½ Tbsp shrimp paste
4 green onions (white and green parts)
½ bunch each cilantro and mint
1 bunch sawtooth herb (if not available, substitute with additional cilantro and mint)
Fresh vegetables and herbs for serving, for instance: sliced cucumbers, green cabbage, napa cabbage, long beans, wing beans, water spinach, mint, sawtooth herb, coriander, Thai basil, pennywort.
- Place pig innards and skin, if using, in a medium saucepan and cover with cold water by 1 inch. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer till cooked, about 15 mins. Drain, reserving the cooking liquid. Set innards aside to cool and then chop to same fineness as chopped meat.
- Pound with mortar and pestle, or very roughly chop, 5 of the skin-on garlic cloves. Heat a wok or frying pan over medium heat and add the veg oil. Add garlic and fry over medium heat, stirring, until golden brown. Remove garlic with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towel. Leave oil in pan and set aside
- Over a grill or an on unoiled griddle or saute pan, char the remaining garlic cloves and shallots over medium-high heat until soft, about 6-8 mins. (Or, place garlic and shallots in a microwaveable bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and microwave on high till soft, about 2-3 mins.) Set aside to cool.
- Toast galangal and spices in an unoiled saute pan or wok over medium heat, stirring constantly, until galangal is touched with brown and spices are fragrant, about 2 mins. Take care not to burn spices. Remove from pan and set aside to cool, separating galangal from dry spices.
- In the same pan, dry fry the chili peppers over medium heat till they're dark but not black. Allow to cool, remove stems (and seeds, if you don't want too much heat), and add to spices.
- In the same pan, toast the gapi slowly over low heat, pressing and flattening it to a patty with a spatula to expose the maximum amount of surface to the heat. Cook until the gapi is lightly browned and no longer smells raw, 1 min. or so per side. (Or, flatten the shrimp paste with the back of a spoon, place on a piece of foil, and toast under a hot broiler till brown.) Set aside to cool.
- Place dry spices and chilies in mortar or blender (or spice grinder) and grind to a rough powder. Remove and set aside.
- Peel garlic and shallots and place in mortar or blender. Add galangal and shrimp paste and pound or chop to a rough puree. Add dry spices and process or pound briefly just to blend.
- Over medium heat, reheat the garlic oil from Step 2. Add garlic-dry spice-shrimp paste mixture and cook, stirring constantly, for two minutes. Add 1/2 cup cooking water from the innards and continue to fry and stir until the liquid is mostly absorbed, about 2 mins. Remove the pan from the heat and leave aside to cool.
- While the paste is cooling, roughly chop together the green onions, cilantro, mint, and sawtooth herb (if using).
- Rehat the spice paste over medium-high heat. Add chopped pork and cook, breaking it up with a fork, until the pink color is almost gone. Add the innards, stir to combine, and taste adjust for salt. Add all but a heaping tablespoon of the chopped green onions and herbs, stir once or twice more to mix, and remove to a plate or bowl.
- Sprinkle with the browned garlic and reserved fresh herbs and serve warm or at room temperature with fresh vegetables and rice.