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Thai laab salad

When I'm in the mood for something light but satisfying, one of my standard tricks is to bulk up a dinner salad with an appetizing topping of meat, poultry, seafood or cheese. A surprisingly slender ration of protein seems to stretch a bowl of salad into something much more filling than rabbit-food alone, yet the dish remains healthfully moderate.

When it comes to salad-as-meal, few culinary cultures have it over Thailand, where salads (and soups, too) reach main-course status.

One of our favorites is laab, sometimes transliterated as larb, a simple but appealing salad dish of chopped pork or chicken kicked up with Thai spice and served atop a mound of lettuce, Asian cabbage or other healthy greens.

Like so many of my quick creations, I can't claim absolute Thai authenticity for this version, nor do I care. Call it an easy salad dinner with a respectful bow in the general direction of Thai tradition, and enjoy.

INGREDIENTS: (Serves two)

8 ounces (250 grams) boneless chicken meat, breast or thigh
Juice of 2 limes
1 tablespoon vegetable oil or peanut oil
Dried red-pepper flakes to taste
2 tablespoons Thai fish sauce (nam pla)
Red onion, enough to make about 1/4 cup chopped
2 green onions
2 short sprigs fresh cilantro
2 short sprigs fresh mint
1 tablespoon raw white rice
Crisp lettuce, Nappa cabbage or a combination


1. Chop the raw chicken fine. I cut it into chunks and process it in the food processor (steel blade). Boneless pork loin or tenderloin may be substituted, but I find chicken makes a fresher and less greasy dish. Put the chopped meat in a bowl and mix it well with about half of the lime juice.

2. Heat the oil in a nonstick skillet, add the dried red-pepper flakes, and briefly cook the chopped meat. It should just cook through, losing its raw pink color but remaining tender and juicy.

3. Allow the meat to cool, and drain off any excess fat. Meanwhile, mix together the remaining lime juice and the fish sauce (nam pla, available at Asian markets) and stir it into the meat.

4. Chop the red onion, green onions, cilantro and mint. Stir the chopped red onions and green onions in with the meat. Add about half of the chopped cilantro and mint, setting the rest aside.

5. Here's an offbeat step that will add a real Thai flavor: Toast the raw white rice in a small dry skillet over medium-high heat until it turns golden brown, stirring it frequently and keeping a close eye on it so it doesn't scorch. As soon as it is evenly browned, pour it out of the skillet into a small mortar, and grind it with a pestle until it's a rough, crunchy powder. Stir about half of this into the meat mixture and set the rest aside.

6. Wash, dry and shred enough romaine or iceberg lettuce and/or Nappa cabbage to make a good-size salad, and put it in a serving bowl. Top with the meat mixture, and garnish with the reserved cilantro, mint and toasted rice. Serve, with extra hot sauce (Vietnamese sriracha is a fine choice) on the side, and steamed rice if you want to bulk your dinner up a bit.

WINE MATCH: I thought a young, fizzy Portuguese Vinho Verde might work well in a cross-cultural match with this spicy Asian dish, but my specific choice, the non-vintage Neblina Vinho Verde from Avelida, turned out to be more bland and neutral than I had hoped for. Next time I might try a crisp, limey New Zealand or Australian Riesling.

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Thursday, Nov. 6, 2003
Copyright 2003 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.

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