I’ve been addicted to laap (or larb or larp, depending on where in Thailand or Laos it’s served) since the first time I ate it in southern Laos about eight years ago. Laap is a magnificent ground meat dish with oodles of herbs, onions, fresh chili, fish sauce, lime and a little toasted rice powder. It can be made with chicken, pork, beef, fish, tofu, duck or even buffalo. The dish also hails from the Issan area in northeastern Thailand and is widely available throughout the country. But I love Lao laap the best — so fresh and healthy, so spicy and not too sweet. When I make this dish for friends and family back home, I usually fetch a few looks of astonishment at the quantity of herbs used in laap. That much?!!? Yes, that much. (Take a look at last month’s post on herbs to get an idea of how much. All three baskets, chopped into little bits.)
When I returned home to Wisconsin a few weeks ago, I set out to re-create my ultimate favorite roasted eggplant laap for my dear friends McKenna, Chandler and baby Callow (otherwise known, among mutual friends, as “The Yahoos”). This version is based on a fish laap that Jerry and I ate at a little restaurant in Luang Prabang, with tables set on the banks of the Mekong. McKenna is expecting Baby #2, and fish just doesn’t appeal to her nose these days, so I made it with chicken instead — which still mingled beautifully with the eggplant and its partner ingredient, fresh dill. The combination is simply divine. I made it again the other night for Jerry, this time with tofu.
So here goes the recipe for a not-entirely-authentic Lao roasted eggplant and dill laap. Now bear in mind, this is the way Jerry, The Yahoos (even baby Callow!) and I like it, with lots of intense flavors and heat. Adjust the ingredients to your liking. This will make enough for a side dish served to a crowd, or the main meal for four people. Halve the recipe if you prefer a smaller dish. It’s a perfect salad for hot summer nights:
2 pounds ground meat (fish, chicken or tofu works best for this recipe)
1 head of garlic, minced
1/4 cup fish sauce
soybean or other oil for frying
2 tablespoons pickled garlic vinegar*
1/2 cup rice grains
2 large eggplants or 5-6 eggplants of any long, thin Asian variety
4-5 pickled garlic cloves
1 large red onion or several shallots
1 bunch of fresh mint (you’ll never have too much!)
1 bunch fresh cilantro
1 bunch fresh dill
1 bunch fresh green onions
hot red chilies, according to taste
juice of two large fresh limes or five small limes
1 bunch leaf lettuce
3 tablespoons sesame oil
*I usually keep a jar of garlic cloves in rice vinegar (dill adds a nice touch to this) on hand in my fridge
Heat frying oil in a wok. Add minced garlic and a dash of fish sauce; fry until golden. Add ground meat, another dash of fish sauce and a sprinkle of pickled vinegar. Fry until done (golden, a little crispy) adding more fish sauce and vinegar to taste. When finished, set aside to cool.
Slice the eggplants in half lengthwise (or in quarters if using large purple eggplants) and baste with a little oil. Grill until the flesh is soft and pungent, but not burned. Set aside to cool.
In a dry wok, toast the rice grains until they turn opaque. Remove from heat and grind into a fine powder using a mortar and pestle. Set aside.
Remove stems from the mint, cilantro and dill. Chop into small pieces and set aside in a large bowl. Chop the green and red onions into small pieces and add to the bowl. Mince the pickled garlic and add to the bowl. Mix everything well.
Remove the skins from the eggplants (the flesh should peel away with relative ease). Use a mortar and pestle or food processor to mash the eggplant flesh.
When the fried meat is cool, mix with the mashed eggplant, then add to the bowl of chopped herbs. Chop the fresh chilies and add to the bowl. Mix continuously while drizzling the remaining fish sauce, vinegar, sesame oil and lime juice over the ingredients. Taste and add more accordingly. Mix in the pounded rice, a little at a time. Set aside for at least half an hour to let the flavors mingle (you might want to add more fish sauce, sesame and lime just before serving). If it’s not hot enough, add more fresh chili. When ready to eat, line a serving bowl with lettuce leaves and pile the laap into the bowl.
In Asia, laap is generally served with sticky rice, but you can eat it with regular rice if you prefer. Or try it as a side dish. Serve it at a potluck. Gauge your guests’ reactions (some people might find the herbs overwhelming if they aren’t used to such quantities of freshness). And if you’ve made it quite spicy, some people may be surprised the next morning to learn how quickly a good laap will clean out the system. Don’t worry — it’s healthy. It’s one of the healthiest dishes on earth.
By the way, you may be wondering how baby Callow, just 20 months, dealt with this dish. She loved it. She loves anything spicy and she adores garlic. She eats it raw off the cutting board. Callow likes rice and beans for breakfast, and she picks fresh herbs from The Yahoos’ garden. She’ll eat anything pungent. Sometimes her parents wonder whether she has tastebuds. But they figure eventually she’ll go off to school and she’ll quickly learn from the other kids that it just isn’t cool to eat so much garlic in America. The Yahoos admit they have a stinky little girl.