Like most Americans, I first tasted Laab,* the Thai beef salad laced with shallots, herbs, fish sauce and lime in Thai restaurants in this country. I have never been to Thailand, but the best laab I have ever had was at a Thai restaurant in a little town in France, where they made the laab with raw beef. The raw beef was more tender than its cooked counterpart, and had a more delicate flavor, setting off the crunch and intensity of the shallots and herbs. At first I thought I was eating a French-Thai fusion—steak tartare meets Laab–but I learned that across Thailand and Laos, laab is made with both cooked and raw beef, pork and fish. Of course, I’ve never seen it raw on a menu here in the States. God bless the French for being so much less food-phobic than Americans!
When my friend Maria called and asked if I was available to keep her company during her three hour layover in Minneapolis, I knew I wanted to make a raw laab to share with her. I think I first had laab with her at a restaurant in Boston; it’s her favorite Thai dish and she orders it every time she has Thai, and secondly, of all my friends, she is the least likely to look askance at a piece of raw meat for dinner.
Although this post recommends beef tenderloin for raw laab, I couldn’t justify the expense. Unfortunately, committing to locally sourced, humanely-raised meat means that the best cuts of meat aren’t always available to me. In this article on steak tartare, the classic French raw beef preparation, Anthony Bourdain recommends sirloin steak for tartare, a relatively economical choice for the laab. Obviously, when serving raw meat, the very best quality of meat is absolutely essential. Meat wrapped in those plastic and Styrofoam packages tends to smell off, and feel slimy, so be sure to go to a butcher.
Since there’s no cooking involved, the laab preparation was a matter of chopping: first the meat into slices, then slivers, then tiny little bits (never, ever use a food processor). Handfuls of cilantro, mint, shallots, lime leaves, and chilies followed. I almost forgot the roasted rice flour, the ingredient that binds the texture and flavors. And then it was just a matter of seasoning “to taste,” that marvelously ambiguous directive. I placed the limes and fish sauce near the bowl and popped bits into my mouth, continuously adjusting. Not sour enough, not salty enough, maybe a pinch of sugar to lift the flavors? And then came the moment when the laab tasted just like I remembered; it was time to serve.
*Although usually spelled Larb, this is the British Romanization. Try saying larb with a British accent. See?
It is extremely difficult to give quantities for laab. Start with these and adjust to your taste. Use big bunches of herbs, err on the side of too much, and it will probably end up just right. I could have done with more herbs in mine.
1 tbsp. raw rice (I used Jasmine)
1 lb. sirloin steak
1 bunch cilantro
1 bunch mint
4-6 Thai bird chilies
3 Kaffir lime leaves
¾ tbsp fish sauce
salt to taste, if necessary
pinch of sugar, optional
Lettuce leaves for serving
1. Toast the rice in a dry skillet, shaking occasionally, until golden and fragrant. Grind to a fine powder in a mortar and pestle or spice grinder.
2. Finely chop sirloin, first into thin slices, the slice crosswise again, as finely as possible.
3. Mince the shallots, herbs, chilies and lime leaves.
4. Combine all and season with fish sauce and lime juice. Taste and adjust seasonings.