“Travel broadens you.” A cliché to be sure, but one that is completely true. Oh, I don’t mean that trip to Las Vegas where you definitely didn’t wind up pawning everything of value you had to pay off those gambling debts. And I’m not talking about staying in the safety and (somewhat) sanitized environment of a resort. Travelling abroad is supposed to be a little bit scary, a little bit messy, and completely exhilarating. Immersing yourself in a different culture has an immediate and lasting impact on your life, and the way you think about the world. Many studies suggest that travelling increases critical thinking skills, and improves creativity, and mental flexibility. It’s also just plain fun, dammit!
Unfortunately, the vast majority of us have neither the funds, nor the time, to be constantly travelling to exotic destinations. (Stupid realities of life, always getting in the way of our good times!) Which is why trying new cuisines, and getting outside our comfort zone is so important for daily life. Expanding your food horizons can sometimes have unexpected benefits too. For those with dietary restrictions, new possibilities for ingredients and preparation abound. It’s all about expanding your mind, and becoming the best version of yourself you can be.
To get inspiration for my meals, I often turn to the vast resources that the internet has to offer, both to find interesting restaurants nearby, and to learn about popular dishes from other countries, and cultures. A couple of weeks ago, I was on a bit of Southeast Asian cuisine kick, and had some ground beef in the fridge, so I spent a morning finding different recipes on Google. This brings me to the dish known as larb.
Larb (or laap) is a type of meat salad, popular in Laos and northern Thailand. It consists of some type of minced meat that is usually flavoured with fish sauce, lime juice, chillies, and fresh herbs. Larb is served either raw or cooked, and accompanied by fresh vegetables, and sticky rice. Since many of us are a bit squeamish about raw meat, I’ll be sticking to the cooked variety. You can use any type of ground meat you want, but I think ground beef- with its extra fat content- has more flavour.
Laotian Beef Larb
(Prep time: 10 minutes. Cook time: 20 minutes. Serves: 3-4 people.)
- 1 lb lean ground beef
- 1/2 stalk lemongrass, ends and outer leaves removed, thinly sliced
- 3 cloves garlic
- 1 small piece ginger, approx. 1/2 inch square, peeled
- 2-3 green Thai chillies, stems removed
- 1/4 cup cilantro leaves and stems, roughly chopped
- 1 tsp canola oil
- 2 tbsp brown sugar
- 2 tbsp fish sauce
- Juice of 1 1/2 limes
- 1/4 cup dry-roasted, salted peanuts, roughly crushed
- Cooked jasmine rice, slightly warm
- Red lettuce leaves, washed and trimmed
- Thinly sliced onion, cucumber, green chillies (for garnish)
In a large skillet, fry the ground beef over medium-high heat for 7-10 minutes. For best results, once you add the meat to the pan, break it up, then leave it alone until a nice brown crust forms on one side. Then you can stir it around to finish cooking the beef all the way through. Remove the cooked beef to a separate dish, but leave the fat from the beef in the pan.
While the beef is browning, place the lemongrass, garlic, ginger, chillies, cilantro, and canola oil into a food processor or blender, and pulse the ingredients together until they form a rough paste. To make the dressing for the salad, whisk together the sugar, lime juice, and fish sauce in a small bowl.
Fry the cilantro/chilli purée in the beef fat, over medium-high heat for 1-2 minutes (do not let it brown). When the purée is nice and fragrant, and the saliva is pouring off your chin, add the cooked ground beef back to the pan, and stir fry everything for 2 minutes. Pour the dressing into the pan, and stir fry for another 2 minutes, until most of the liquid is gone. Finally, add the peanuts to the mixture, and fry for 1 minute more.
At this point, you can serve your larb in any fashion you choose. For a fun, healthy meal, place the larb, warm jasmine rice, red lettuce leaves, and a plate of various garnishes (eg. thinly sliced onion, cucumber, chilli peppers, mint leaves, crushed peanuts, lime wedges…) on the table, and build your own lettuce wraps. Or just mix the larb and rice together, top with garnishes, and use your fingers to shovel the goodness into your maw. After all, the fun part is getting your hands dirty.
I hope this simple dish will inspire you to try something different, stretch the limits of your culinary travels, and open your mind to new possibilities. And who knows, maybe one day you’ll make your way to some far-flung locale, for your own adventures. Maybe I’ll even see you there…