Kris Yenbamroong is the owner of Night + Market and Night + Market Song in Los Angeles, whose cookbook is out this month, woo hoo! If you’re having a severe Thai food deficit in your life, you need this book. So that’s all of us. In the excerpt + recipe below, Kris waxes poetic about his love for larb.
Larb (noun, verb) / laap / : a spicy minced meat salad meant to be eaten with your hands along with herbs, sticky rice, and various vegetables.
A year or so ago, I was in Isaan, Thailand hanging out at a house owned by the sister of my friend Ah Pong. I met Ah Pong several years ago because he worked under my uncle Vilas (who was a general) as a sergeant in the Thai army. He is from Udon Thani, the largest city in Isaan, and his real name is Pongkham, but I call him Ah Pong—ah being a way of calling someone uncle when they’re not necessarily related to you.
Occasionally we’d take trips to Isaan together. On one of those trips, I ended up talking to Ah Pong’s sister’s husband about larb, and somehow the subject of turkey larb came up—a dish that I had heard about but had never tried before. Oh, let’s make some right now, came the immediate response from the husband. So we crowded into a pickup truck, drove out to the boonies at dusk, and hiked to a mosquito-infested “ranch” run by a former high school teacher who had gotten into the turkey-raising business after retirement. He told us the turkeys were too scrawny to sell—they had some fattening up to do before the end of summer—but after some coaxing he sold us the largest bird of the flock, which weighed in around 12 pounds.
So after bagging that turkey inside an old rice sack, we hauled it home and got to work on the larb. Someone sliced the turkey’s throat while I held it by the legs upside down, the blood sputtering into a metal bowl as it drained from its body. As someone who had never slaughtered a live animal before, it was borderline traumatizing to feel an animal fight for its life (I could see the imprint of its feet in my hands afterward). And I realize I say this as a chef who serves and consumes a lot of meat, but it’s not the best feeling to kill an animal. There’s a certain mixture of apprehension and adrenaline that hits right before as you realize you’re going to be eating that same bird in a short span of time. After doing it once, I’m good on slaughtering for a while.
We plucked the feathers, butchered the bird into fat cuts of pale pink meat, then took turns chopping the meat on a wide tree stump until it became a fine turkey mince. The whole ordeal took two to three hours, lubricated by copious amounts of icy beer and pork rinds. Making larb from scratch can be an intensive process, but it’s also a communal thing, like a clambake or a tri-tip barbecue. When you butcher a whole animal for larb, everyone pitches in to prepare some element. One person is making stock from the bones, another person is straining and cleaning the blood, and someone else is frying up the skin to make cracklings to crumble on top. Somebody takes their turn on meat mincing duty (thwack! thwack!) while the little kids are in the corner chopping up fresh herbs. There’s a remarkable efficiency to the whole thing. And of course there are the older guests on the sidelines nursing beers, watching and occasionally acting as sort of cheerleaders while the larb takes shape. By the time you’re actually ready to eat, you realize that the social context in which you’re making it matters as much as the food itself.
The word larb is a loaded concept. Almost everyone in Thailand knows its meaning, but for each person it can signify something totally different. It can be used as a verb, as in, I’m going to larb the hell out of this turkey, or that slab of pork, or this catfish I pulled out of the lake. In the most literal terms it means you’re going to chop to some degree of fineness, possibly until your hands ache, then season it with a variety of herbs and spices; but in a larger sense it represents this folksy idea of cooking, like how the term “barbecue” conjures specific images with deep emotional resonance in parts of the United States. When it comes to the world of larb, the two basic, extremely broad schools of seasoning are the Lao-style in Isaan (lime, spicy, fish sauce, rice powder) and the Lanna-style in Northern Thailand (earthy, salty, bitter herbs). Both are really good drinking foods; in fact, they sort of demand alcohol.
The idea is to make little bites by scooping up a bit of the larb with sticky rice, then alternating with some raw vegetables. I’ve even seen people use cabbage leaves to make tiny larb tacos. It’s not quite an appetizer, not quite a main dish, but something you can keep coming back to throughout the meal.
My own personal obsession with larb runs deep. When you walk into any of the Night + Market dining rooms, just off to the side of the doorway, you’ll see a bright neon sign that reads “Larb King.” I think of Larb King as my fantasy alter ego, a larger-than-life persona. As Liam Neeson says in Batman Begins, “If you make yourself more than just a man, if you devote yourself to an ideal, you become something else entirely.” I think about iconic LA spots like King Taco and Original Tommy’s Hamburgers, both specialists that have an instant association with their names. What if larb could be on that level?
My goal is that someday larb goes mainstream—that it becomes its own thing, like pad Thai, rather than something food nerds debate over. Even among Thai people, there are more hot dog stands than larb vendors. If we don’t turn it into a pop sensation, who will?
The reason why I find larb so important in particular is because I have this dream that five years from now, it won’t be considered exotic. It will be normalized. It won’t be something to be gawked at. It’s so particularly Thai that, if anything, I want to pull the focus off the food, not because the taste isn’t important but because I want people to enjoy sitting there and socializing around it. That’s when the idea of larb comes full circle from what it is in Thailand. After all, you and your friends probably don’t spend a lot of time talking about how blown away you are by In-N-Out every time you eat one of their burgers—you know it’s delicious, they know it’s delicious, and everyone moves forward with their lives.
The good news is that larb, despite a funny name and a particular way of being consumed, doesn’t exactly need a PR team. It represents the way people like to eat now. It has bold flavors, it’s veggie-heavy, it’s quick to prepare, it’s customizable, it’s refreshing, and it works well with alcohol.
Get the recipe: Basic Chicken Larb (Larb Gai)
Reprinted from Night + Market. Copyright © 2017 by Kris Yenbamroong. Photographs by Marcus Nilsson. Published by Clarkson Potter/Publishers, an imprint of Penguin Random House, LLC.