Moo Larb is the perfect dish for a hot summer’s day. It’s incredibly easy to make and really refreshing. It’s kind of a meat salad which hails from South East Asia; we first tried it in Lao but have also eaten it in Thailand, and quickly became hooked. Even better, all the ingredients are really easy to find in our home country. There’s a tiny bit of preparation needed prior to assembling the dish, so worth thinking about making it ahead of time. The following recipe will easily feed four as a starter or two hungry people.
300g pork mince. Chicken mince also works really well and quorn mince provides a nice vegetarian alternative. Lamb isn’t recommended as it’s quite fatty and the fat tends to congeal a little which doesn’t provide a very nice texture.
1 large red onion (or 2 small)
Generous handful of fresh mint
Generous handful of fresh coriander
Freshly milled black pepper
Generous splash of fish sauce (vegetarians can use veggie fish sauce or a combination of soy sauce and vinegar) – around half a tablespoon
Optional: chilli flakes, toasted rice, teaspoon of sugar, Thai basil leaves for garnish
You need to allow enough time for the mince to cook and cool before assembling the dish. Its’ the perfect ‘make in advance’ dish.
Cook the mince. Pour a little oil into a pan and fry until the meat is cooked through. Allow it to cool.
Finely chop the onion, coriander and mint.
Add the fish sauce, lime juice and black pepper to taste. We really like coarsely ground black pepper so grind ours in a pestle and mortar. This is really where you can adapt the flavour to your personal taste.
Mix well. Serve with steamed rice and a salad garnish.
There are some variations. If you like heat, add chilli flakes (flakes are better than fresh chilli). This was one of the dishes we had in Lao that wasn’t searingly hot, the spice coming from the pepper rather than chilli, but it’s fine to add more heat if you like it. If you’d like to add some sweetness, sprinkle in a little sugar and mix in. There is also a variation where you can add roasted ground rice powder for an additional nutty complexity to the flavour and texture. It’s very simple: place a handful of uncooked Thai rice in a dry frying pan and roast the rice for 10 minutes or so, until the rice is brown. Then transfer to a pestle and mortar or a spice grinder and grind to a powder.
(You can actually toast more rice to make a greater quantity of this powder; it will keep for a couple of months in an airtight container.)
There’s a general assumption that the cuisines of many countries in South East Asia – Thailand, Lao, Cambodia and Vietnam – are pretty much the same but that would be doing them a great disservice. While they may share many ingredients and seasonings, each cuisine is different and it is a joy to be able to discover the nuances of the foods from each country.
Lao, for example, being landlocked, relies on the river for its piscine bounties rather than the sea. Hence most of the fish served will be river fish. River weed, dried in in the sun and flavoured with seasonings, makes for a tasty snack.
Luang Prabang, Lao’s former capital, located in the north of the country, lies on the Mekong river at its confluence with the Nam Khan.
It’s a lovely, laid back town with plenty of temples and palaces to explore, which are largely within easy walking distance.
Wat Xieng Thong is the best known of the temples, located a short walk from the confluence. The main Wat has an intricate design and a beautiful tree of life mural.
The Royal Palace was built in 1904 when Lao was under French occupation. The monarchy was overthrown by the communists in 1975 and the building converted into a museum.
Crossing the Mekong and following a short hike up a hill you can reach the small temple of Wat Chomphet with its old stupa and Wat Long Khone. It’s more peaceful and less touristy on this side of the river.
It’s also possible to hire a longboat and drift downriver at sunset, cool glass of beer in hand, enjoying the colours of the evening.
Lao’s formal name is Lao PDR – People’s Democratic Republic. Informally, locals will let you know that PDR stands for Please Don’t Rush – a wise philosophy which also means that you shouldn’t worry if service at restaurants is slow. (Actually, we didn’t notice particularly slow service anywhere we went.) But it’s a good reminder to relax and enjoy your time in this friendly country.
Luang Prabang has a number of bars and restaurants which range from cheap eats to higher end offerings. Utopia is a short walk away from the town, set atop a cliff which overlooks the river. It’s a very laid-back place with a cool vibe and is located in a quirky garden setting.
There is a sorrowful side to the garden design though. Many of the flower pots are actually bomb shells from the time of the Vietnam War when, over the course of nine years, the US dropped roughly two million tonnes of bombs on Lao in a secret attempt to support the royal Lao government against the communists led by Pathet Lao, as well as impact the Ho Chi Minh trail. The country remains the most bombed per head of the population in history. Worse still, a significant amount of the ordnance – about a third of the devices dropped – failed to detonate and, more than forty years later, there is still a huge problem with unexploded bombs that remain embedded in the ground, despite some international efforts to clear them.
Utopia is popular amongst backpackers for its chilled atmosphere during the day (it has activities such as yoga lessons available) and livens up a lot at night, and it offers local and western food.
One of the best restaurants in the city for Lao food is Tamarind, on the Kingkitsarath Rd, and they specialise in local cuisine. They offer tasting menus which give visitors the chance to try various specialities. It’s a fantastic introduction to local fare. It’s a popular restaurant so it’s worth booking ahead if you can, although we got lucky with a walk-in for lunch.
We started with Lao-Lao shots as an aperitif. Lao-Lao is rice whiskey. Its name isn’t a cute term of endearment – the two words have different tones in pronunciation and hence different meanings. The first Lao means “alcohol” and the second means “from Lao”. The whiskey has a mild flavour but is pretty potent at round 40-45% alcohol.
The starter was chunky bamboo and vegetable soup. A lot of Lao food can be searingly hot, with chilli often providing the heat, but this wasn’t; whilst still spicy, it had a piquancy in the seasoning that allowed the flavour of the vegetables and herbs to shine through.
Then came a platter of Lao specialities. These included dinky little sausages with a variety of relishes, which varied in the amount of spice they delivered, as well as kaipen – crispy sun-dried river weed coated with sesame seeds.
The next dish was fragrant lemongrass stuffed with chicken which felt like a bit of a contradiction. Usually you would expect lemongrass to flavour the meat but this was soft minced chicken, delicately spiced, placed into the bulbous part of the lemongrass stalk, then steamed and fried. The gentle scent of the lemongrass imparted a delicate citrus flavour. It was accompanied by herbed river fish steamed in a banana leaf along with local vegetables.
Finally, purple sticky rice cooked in coconut milk with tamarind sauce – which was sweet and slightly sour as well as delightfully sticky – rounded off a splendid meal.
We’re not really fans of coffee culture. We love coffee but we like to keep it simple: brew it “black as midnight on a moonless night,” to quote the wonderful 1990s (revived in 2017) TV series Twin Peaks, a show that relished “damn fine coffee.” And coffee from chain cafes is really expensive. Honestly, we’d rather go to a pub and have a pint of beer/lager/cider where we’d only pay a little more for the beverage, especially on a hot day.
When we visited a local barista in Lao’s capital Vientiane we didn’t have very high expectations of the drink we were about to be offered. But we ended up being very pleasantly surprised.
Step 1: Make sure you don’t plan to sleep for any time within the next 8 hours.
Step 2: Our barista had a basic coffee filter set up. She brewed a very strong brew…
Step 3: Brewed, of course, into a can of condensed milk which is milk plus, plus, plus: thick, smooth, creamy and outrageously sweet. Yes, that is an entire can of sweet, syrupy, gloopy, delicious condensed milk.
Step 4: Don’t forget that it’s a lovely day. The weather is HOT. Why would you want a hot coffee on a hot and humid day? Of course you would actually want your coffee to be cold! Fill a mug with ice.
Step 5: Pour the delicious coffee/condensed milk mixture on top. If you want a sugar rush on top of the caffeine, add a tablespoon or so of sugar. Stir, then serve.
Just in case you aren’t consuming enough calories, why not enjoy some scrummy home-made doughnuts which are a delightful accompaniment to the coffee.
Beats anything by any of the big coffee chains any day of the week. Delish!
But what was really nice about this experience that after making Ultimate Coffee for us our barista settled down to eat her lunch inside her house (just beyond the shop front) with her mum. They offered us some to try – it was frog stew: whole frogs in a spicy sauce with lots of fresh herbs. It was very good indeed. Really.