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Chicken larb and purple sticky rice

December 3, 2007
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When I first started researching my cookbook, I decided I wanted to include as many different Asian Pacific American communities as possible. This hasn’t always been easy as there are some communities I am not very well connected with. Case in point: the Laotian community. Fortunately, a contact put me in touch with a Lao gentleman who is a community leader and a deacon at Our Lady of Mount Virgin Catholic Church in Seattle’s Central District where the local Lao community gathers for mass every Sunday. I showed up one Sunday morning and he introduced me to two ladies who agreed to show me how to make some of their traditional dishes. They belonged to two distinct Lao hill tribes–Yi Thao was Hmong and Keo Choulapha was Khmu.

When I told Yi I wanted her to show me how to cook some family recipes, she wrinkled her nose and said the food her parents ate was very bland. “Chicken boiled with vegetables, tofu, pumpkin grown in the garden boiled with water … very healthy food,” she said. It was obvious she equated healthy with tasteless. After I circumvented egg rolls (the Hmong are descendants of an ancient ethnic group that lived in China before migrating to Southeast Asia in the early 19th century, so egg rolls may not be too far off but I wanted something a little closer to typical Lao cuisine), we finally settled on chicken larb.

The following week, I met with Yi, a young mother of 4 kids ranging in age from 15 to 24. Yi is what I would call a “chili padi” (those tiny Thai bird’s eye chilies that are so spicy they could make a grown man cry), a bundle of energy packed into her petite 5-foot frame. The moment I arrived, she ushered me into her kitchen and started bustling around doing a dozen things all at once.

The first thing Yi did was pop a small skillet onto the stove and pour sticky rice grains into it. She was dry roasting the grains to make roasted rice powder, an essential ingredient in chicken larb (also spelled laap, larp or laab.) Roasted rice powder is available at Asian grocery stores but Yi prefers to make it herself since it’s so easy. Besides, the hardest part of the process was her husband’s job–pounding the toasted rice in a mortar and pestle. All she had to do is sift the powder to get the smoothest grains. Aah … the beauty of delegation.

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Larb is the unofficial national dish of Laos and is also very popular in neighboring Thailand. You’ve probably seen this Lao meat salad on the menu at Thai restaurants. Larb can be made with chicken, beef, duck, pork or even fish, and some prefer to eat the meat raw (not the poultry of course). It is usually served at room temperature with sticky rice.

Sticky rice is a staple for Lao people and is traditionally eaten out of a woven basket, with fingers. Hence to keep fingers clean and rice out of the various dishes, the dishes are not [excessively] wet or oily which explains why Yi’s larb recipe uses no oil and very lean chicken breast meat.

I have never observed the Lao way of making sticky rice but I dare venture a guess that Yi’s method was a little unorthodox. First, she boiled half a (14 oz) package of black sticky rice in a pot of water until the liquid turned a murky grayish purple. After straining the black sticky rice (and to my surprise, throwing it away), she soaked the white sticky rice in the black sticky rice “juice” for about half an hour. “Just for the color and to make pretty,” she explained. “You can mix white and black rice together but I don’t like it.” The resulting rice was dyed an attractive purplish hue.

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Then she steamed the rice in a special sticky rice steaming basket and pot set which looks like an inverted cone-shaped hat balanced on a spitoon.

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Traditionally, the basket is woven from bamboo but Yi prefers one that is made from plastic. Halfway through the steaming process (about 15 minutes), she removed the basket and in one deft movement she flipped the rice mound upside down and replaced the basket on its base to continue steaming.

In between soaking and flipping rice, Yi was also chopping herbs for the larb. In no time, she threw the larb together and dinner was ready.

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Before we started eating, Yi showed me how to mould the sticky rice into a ball and pick up some of the larb. Somehow or another, I managed to get everything into my mouth without spilling and embarrassing myself.  

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Chicken larb (Lao meat salad)

Yi usually buys lean chicken breast meat and cuts out all the fat before mincing it herself (with a cleaver!) because she finds ground chicken often too fatty. But if you don’t fancy all that work, use the leanest ground chicken breast you can find. All the herbs below are available at Asian grocery stores and each brings with it a unique flavor to the dish. But I have seen larb recipes using only cilantro, spearmint and green onions as greens, so if you can’t find them all, the dish will still taste good even if not totally authentic. To identify some of the lesser known herbs like saw leaf or rau rahm, food writer Andrea Nguyen has a great reference page on her web site: Vietworldkitchen.com.

Time: 40 minutes (mostly prep work)
Makes: 4 servings

1-1/2 pounds lean ground chicken breast
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon MSG (yes, many Asian home cooks still use it but it’s totally optional)
1/3 cup roasted rice powder (available in Asian markets or you can make your own by roasting raw rice in a dry skillet over the stove till brown. Then grind in a coffee grinder or mortar and pestle)
1/2 cup cilantro stems and leaves, reserve half the leaves for garnish and chop the remaining stems and leaves finely
4 green onions, cut the green tops into “O’s and slice the bottom 2 inches thinly lengthwise for garnish
1/2 cup saw leaf herb (also called cilantro or Mexican coriander), chopped finely
1/2 cup spearmint leaves, torn into small pieces
6 kaffir limes leaves, chopped finely
1/2 cup rau rahm (also called Vietnamese coriander), chopped finely
6 bird’s eye chilies, chopped (or to taste)
2-inches unpeeled galangal, minced
2 stalks lemongrass, outer skin removed, trimmed, and minced
1 teaspoon crushed dried red pepper
2 teaspoons fish sauce
Juice of 1 large lime (about 2 tablespoons)

Heat a medium wok or skillet until it is very hot and add the chicken and stir fry without any oil. The chicken will stick to the pan at first, but its juices will come out and the meat will loosen. Add salt and MSG if using. Stir fry for about 6 to 7 minutes until chicken is no longer pink and fully cooked but not too brown. Transfer meat to a big bowl and let cool for about 5 minutes.

Add roasted rice powder, herbs and spices, crushed dried red pepper, fish sauce and lime juice. Mix well and taste. You should taste a nice balance of heat (chilies and red pepper), tartness (lime juice) and salt (fish sauce). Don’t be afraid to add more of anything to get the flavor balance just right. Garnish with reserved cilantro and green onions and serve with sticky rice.

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17 Comments leave one →
  1. November 27, 2012 6:59 pm

    A good colander works just as well. I’ve resorted to using one two on trips where I craved rice and had to do with whatever was available to me. After soaking rice for minimum of two hours, place rice into colander, bring a big pot of water to boil and place colander on top of pot, making sure that the bottom of the colander is not touching the water, cover top and partial side of colander with foil, folding close the sides to keep steam in, then steam for 30 mins or more (depending on amount of rice). Be sure to check every so often that you have enough water so your pot doesn’t burn. Also note, if you have a metal colander, it is preferred, otherwise you’ll end up melting your plastic ones, hehe (lesson learned).

    • December 24, 2012 1:44 am

      Hi Jessica, thanks for your input! That’s great advice. Perhaps you’d like to cook with me sometime??

  2. Laura permalink
    October 12, 2012 4:51 am

    I love to make sticky rice, but I don’t like the bamboo steamer basket, where did she find the pastic version??

    • November 27, 2012 5:44 pm

      Hi Laura, I’m not sure where she bought hers but in Seattle there are several Asian (specifically Vietnamese) markets that sell them. Hopefully you can find one in your neighborhood. Or try online?

      • Laura permalink
        November 28, 2012 9:36 pm

        Thanks for the information! I greatly appreciate it. -Laura

  3. rubyred permalink
    November 28, 2011 7:00 pm

    Wow, so glad I stumbled upon this blog.

    Yi is my cousin! She’s a great cook and her way of making larb is exactly how the family makes it. Of course, each individual may more or less of a certain ingredient but still, the outcome is delicious!

    As for the reason why we dye our white sticky rice, there really isn’t one. I remember asking my mom while growing up and her answer was the same as Yi’s, “it is pretty”. Another reason I was given was that it tastes better too, but i don’t know about that.

    Another delicious suggestion to add to sticky rice is corn! My aunt cooks corn she grows from her garden and then cuts the corn off the cob and mixes it in with the sticky rice for a flavorful rice that can be eaten alone or made into some yummy mochi! We look forward to this every year from her.

    As a few have stated, there are many variations to larb and not everyone makes it the same. Like I stated, some individuals will add more ingredients and some, very few. The key ingredients are the fish sauce, lime and rice powder. They are what makes the dish for me.

    Everyone, enjoy making this dish cause it is just simply delicious!

    • December 1, 2011 8:24 am

      Hello Rubyred,

      What a coincidence! Thanks for clarifying the recipe and for the suggestion to add corn to larb. That’s what homecooking is all about–adding your own personal touches to the dish. Please tell Yi I said ‘hi’. I sent her a note when the book came out I hope she got it. I’m glad you found me. Take care, Pat

  4. ntxawg permalink
    October 9, 2008 9:28 pm

    I’m not sure about it being unorthodox, all the hmong people I know who make the purple sticky rice does it the same way by “dying” the white sticky rice

  5. August 6, 2008 5:17 pm

    Toua Thao, are there distinct differences in the Hmong way of preapring larb?

  6. July 29, 2008 3:18 pm

    Nice to see someone paying attention to the Hmong way of cooking Larb. If anyone ever decides to venture to South East Asia, you’ll discover how many variation this dish created from. I’ve traveled extensively throughout Thailand and the Larb seems to vary from different regions. One thing always remains the same, they all taste great.

  7. December 14, 2007 4:20 pm

    Thanks, Desie, I appreciate your compliments!

  8. December 8, 2007 3:30 am

    great recipe, sounds delicious. the details and photos are wonderful.

  9. Papillong permalink
    December 5, 2007 11:08 am

    Thanks Pat – what a great way to dedicate something to my community! My family is from the Vientiane/central region so I think there are some differences w/the various Lao groups. The version I make excludes MSG, kaffir lime leaves, rau rahm – and tastes just as good. The black and white rice combination is definitely different as we typically serve the white sticky rice.

    The tip to getting your liquid or stew soaked w/out having it crumble is making your ‘ball’ as solid as possible. For soups and any liquid dishes, utensiles are encouraged. Meats and fresh cut cucumbers or radishes (typically served on the side of laab) are picked up by fingers. Practice is the key; I hope this helps!

    Pat – I have two other common Lao receipes if you wish to expand on this at another time.

    Thanks for sharing!

  10. December 4, 2007 10:33 pm

    Marvin,
    If you click on the roasted rice powder link above there’s an explanation why sticky rice is prefered. I’ll check out the meme … Thanks!

    Robyn,
    Isn’t Yi’s dyeing method fascinating?
    We also ate a beef and mustard greens dish that had some liquid to it and I just squeezed out as much liquid from the meat/veggies before scooping it with the rice. Another time, I had sausage, sticky rice and bamboo soup with a Khmu family and err … we used chopsticks and a spoon for the soup.
    They also eat regular rice (with a spoon I’m told)so there must be a system as to which dishes go with sticky vs regular rice. I will get to the bottom of it!

  11. December 4, 2007 6:53 pm

    You’ve just made me hungry for laab, and I’m heading downstairs now to soak some sticky rice. Very interesting method for ‘dying’ the white rice!

    N. Thais and Laos eat sticky rice with some ‘wet’ foods … eg. see Andrea Nguyen’s ‘Saveur’ article on Hmong farmers in California and the accompanying recipe for pork and mustard green soup/stew. I have yet to master the art of dipping sticky rice into a stew without having it dissolve, embarassingly, in front of my eyes.

  12. December 4, 2007 9:24 am

    i’ve had chicken larb a few times at thai restaurants, but didn’t know it was a laotian dish too. It’s amazing how many different Asian cultures there are. Thanks for sharing this recipe, Pat.

    If I decide to roast my own rice, does it matter what kind of rice I use?

    btw, I tagged you for a meme over at my blog. Feel free to participate if you have time, but don’t feel obligated.

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  1. De keuken tegenover het rommelhok » Larb

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