I love laab (or larb or lahb or laap). The fatty meat cut with tangy dressing, fresh herbs and a good shock of spice can warm you up on a cold night or offer a refreshing bite on those hot and heady days of summer. It’s a salad for people who don’t like salads. More herbs than lettuce, more meat than anything else, it satisfies so many cravings in a single dish. I’ve eaten a lot of laab and thought that I had even had some good ones in my past, but my whole world was turned on end a few weeks ago when I had the laab at Michelin starred Thai restaurant, Uncle Boons. Uncle Boons laab was the laab to end all laabs. Intensely acidic, heavily spiced and at times numbingly spicy, these flavours somehow combined to create a taste reminiscent of a really good cheeseburger. There’s no cheese and no beef involved but the vinegary cucumber combined with the unctuousness of the lamb and closed eyes will send you to cheeseburger heaven. A few days later, I needed to be in laab heaven again.
Since I don’t live in New York and laab doesn’t travel via mail particularly well, I had to try to recreate the dish myself. Luckily, the owners of Uncle Boons had given up their secrets and I was able to find a recipe on First We Feast. Unfortunately, I never make Thai food because I’m a little lazy when it comes to gathering lots of spices (also why I never make Indian food despite my intense love for it) and I hate fish sauce (although my husband will argue that I secretly and now blatantly love it.) Anyway, this recipe has about two gallons of fish sauce in the dressing and I was using everything I could to get every last drop of said dressing off the plate.
It turns out making laab isn’t particularly hard. It turns out making this laab, on the other hand, is hard (or at least a little time consuming). You have to start out with toasted sticky rice powder and it took me forever to toast the rice and two tries to toast the galangal and ginger. After that, everything came together easily. So here’s the recipe--I recommend doubling the amount of meat because you'll have lots of extra dressing and will want so much more!
Uncle Boons Lamb Laab
Makes 2 servings
For the toasted rice powder:
* 1 cup sticky rice (also called “sweet rice” at Asian grocery stores)
* 2 tablespoons thinly sliced galangal (optional)
* 2 tablespoons thinly sliced lemongrass (optional)
For the laab dressing:
* ¾ cup fish sauce
* 3 cloves garlic
* 1 teaspoon ground chili powder
* 2 red Thai bird chiles
* ½ cup lime juice
* ½ cup white vinegar
* 1 oz palm sugar
* 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro root and stems
* ¼ cup sliced galangal
* ¼ cup blended oil
For the laab salad:
* 8 oz course-ground lamb shoulder (I couldn't find any ground lamb, so bought a few pieces of shoulder, removed the bones and coarsely ground the meat in the food processor)
* ¼ cup sliced shallot
* ¼ cup sliced cucumber
* ¼ cup cilantro leaves
* 2 tablespoons mint leaves
* 2 tablespoons sliced scallions
* 2 tablespoons julienned sawtooth herb (optional; I could not find it at my Asian market but you might be able to locate it)
Spread 1 cup sticky rice out on a sheet tray. Roast the rice in a preheated 400°F oven at for approximately 55 minutes, or until very dark brown. Next, toast the thinly-sliced lemongrass and galangal in a 350°F oven for 15-20 minutes (or until golden and dried out). Grind the toasted rice, lemongrass, and galangal to a fine powder in a spice grinder or blender. The rice powder will keep in the freezer for months.
Combine the following ingredients in a blender: fish sauce, garlic, chili powder, chiles, lime juice, vinegar, palm sugar, cilantro, galangal, and blended oil. Blend until combined, and set the dressing aside. (This keeps for one week in the fridge.)
Heat 1 tablespoon blended oil in a skillet over high heat until it starts to smoke. Add the ground lamb to the pan. Season well with salt and ½ teaspoon chili powder. Sear the lamb until almost cooked through and turn off the heat. Place in a bowl. Add the cilantro leaves, mint leaves, sawtooth herb, and sliced scallion. Roughly tear the herbs with your hands as you’re adding them. Add sliced shallot and cucumber to the bowl. And 2 tablespoons toasted rice powder. Add ¼ cup laab dressing and mix well. Taste to determine if you want to add more dressing, lime, or herbs.
Serve on a small platter with sticky rice and lime wedges. It's great the next day reheated or straight out of the fridge.