You may know this as “larb gai” or even as “lahb gai”, but there is an easy(ish) explanation for for the different labels. As I learned in Day 1 of Thai language class – there is no universal system for transliteration of Thai into latin letters. This means that the mystery of the Thai language is further complicated for foreigners as every entity trying to put Thai into a format that can be read by Westerners has to agree on a pronunciation of each word before transliterating it. When said by most native Thai speakers, “larb” sounds much more like “laab”. The double “aa” and the “ah” that are sometimes plugged into the middle of this word serve the same purpose in pronunciation – that when you say the word, you hold out the “ahhhhh” sound. Clear as mud? And there you have a glimpse into why I leave every Thai class a bit more confused than when I entered. The good news is that the “gai” is easy – it means chicken. (Just be sure to emphasize that “g” so you don’t accidentally say “kai” in which case you’ll be ordering an egg, which would be weird.)
Laab gai is a Thai chicken salad that is simple to make and full of bright, fresh herbs. Laab is made with a variety of different proteins, although they all contain the same basic additions to add flavor. Order laab “moo” and you get the salad made with pork, laab “peht” will get you duck. I’ve also had laab made with mushrooms (and lots of spice) at one of my favorite Bangkok spots – Soul Food Mahanakorn (read about it here).
The fresh herbs are key, so you chop the heck out of them before putting them into the salad.
The only unusual ingredient in this recipe is toasted ground rice, which you don’t need much of, but works as a binding agent and gives the salad a bit of texture and a nutty flavor. It’s important, so don’t leave it out. A small bag of ground rice (look for ground glutinous or sticky rice) shouldn’t be expensive and should be relatively easy to find in an Asian market. It’s also incredibly easy to make if you have uncooked sticky rice laying around. Just put about a quarter cup of uncooked sticky rice kernels in a pan over medium heat and roast, stirring frequently until they become lightly toasted. Allow them to cool and grind them up in a food processor or (the old school way) with a mortar and pestle. It should be a fine powder when you’re done with it.
This salad is traditionally served with sticky rice, but I also love it served on lettuce leaves like those lettuce wraps that are so common (and tasty) at restaurants in the US these days.
- 10 mint leaves
- 4 kaffir lime leaves (center spines removed)
- ¼ cup cilantro leaves, loosely packed
- 12 oz ground chicken
- 1 Tbsp. toasted ground glutinous rice
- 1 tsp. fish sauce
- 1 lemongrass stalk (white part only, outer layer removed), finely minced
- 1 Tbsp. thinly sliced shallot
- 3 scallions (white and green parts), thinly sliced
- ¼ tsp. ground red chili powder
- ½ tsp. salt
- juice from ½ lime
- lime wedges and extra mint leaves for garnish (optional)
- Combine the mint, kaffir lime leaves and cilantro and chop until very fine. Set aside.
- In a nonstick skillet, cook chicken with 1 Tbsp. water over medium heat. As the chicken cooks, break it apart with a spatula so that it stays in small pieces. Keep the chicken cooking slowly, reducing the heat if it begins to brown. When the chicken is cooked through and still moist (there should be moisture in the bottom of the pan), remove it from heat.
- Add all remaining ingredients to the chicken, including the finely chopped herbs, and mix well. Serve immediately, with sticky rice.