The Isaan Larb salad at Lotus of Siam (click to enlarge).
Larb (also transliterated “Laab” and “Laap”) is doubtlessly one of the best-known dishes from the Isaan region in northeast Thailand, which lies adjacent to Laos and Cambodia. On home ground, the salad is made with duck, pork, or river fish, or even dried fish, but it has long appeared on NYC Siamese menus made with pork, or, more often, chicken.
Whatever the salad is made with, the main ingredient in ground and cooked form is the center of attention, tasting strongly of lime and sometimes even more strongly of the short, colorful chiles that give Thai food much of its heat. Fresh mint and kaffir lime leaves are also frequent additions. Great versions of pork larb enliven the menus of such local restaurants as Pam Real Thai Food, Sripraphai, Khao Sarn II, and Chao Thai, and Kin Shop does a fine version made with duck, the first in town to do so.
Now Lotus of Siam appears on lower Fifth Avenue, offering a pair of larbs, confusing everyone, including me. The one called “Issan Larb” is made with ground pork heavily laden with lime juice and faintly flavored with chopped scallions. The salad is more refreshing than hot. The other version is called “Northern Larb,” and it seems, at least on first taste, to be more like what we thought Isaan Larb was.
Unaccountably, on the occasion of these photographs, when the waiter brought us our Northern Larb, it was made with ground chicken (the menu says pork), but the flavor was fantastic, pungent with herbs and faintly gingery, but without the slightest tartness. Weird!
Northern Larb — in this case, made with chicken — at Lotus of Siam (click to enlarge).
Accepting them for what they are — unanticipated but nonetheless welcome variations on the theme of Larb — both are an asset to NYC’s extended Thai menu. Heck, I bet there’s a different version for each village in Isaan. Still, if I had my druthers, I’d pick Northern Larb for its pungent intensity.
The thought occurred to me that, as the person most closely associated with the introduction of northern Thai cuisine to the U.S., perhaps the chef is giving Northern Larb the advantage in this contest.
The Winner: Northern Larb