SALAD: Pork larb (Thai minced pork and herb salad)

I miss home.

I miss home when it’s most unexpected: when I’m just about to fall asleep, when a friend talks about the puppy they had as a child, or when I taste something familiar. I feel it in my bones.

But I have a way to reconnect and recharge when the missing gets too real. I concoct dishes that remind me of streetside market stalls and carts pushed by ladies that have known me from the time I learned to walk. I seek flavors that bring back hot and humid days spent flat on cooling marble floors, on which my nanny used to place plates of papaya salad, skewers of grilled chicken, and little plastic bags of sticky rice.

With that sticky rice, I loved eating the dish I’m about to share with you today.

It’s a dish that’s beautifully balanced and yet gutsily flavored, like all good Thai food. You get whacked over the head with the fragrance of cilantro, mint, and Thai basil, and then enveloped by the warm smell of minced pork and toasted rice. Your tongue is ravaged by dried chili flakes (optional, of course), and then cooled when you munch on a bit of lettuce or cucumber to tame the flame. Sweet shallots compliment the kick of fish sauce and lime, and just a bit of sugar binds all the flavors together into a dressing that you just. can’t. stop. eating.

To recreate my little slice of home,

You’ll need:

The dressing:
– fish sauce, to taste (I use roughly 2-3 tbsp, probably)
– 2 tsp sugar
– 1 or 2 limes

The rest:
– 400g ground/minced pork. Do NOT get lean-ground pork! Most of the fat will cook away and melt into the dressing. Without it, you’ll have a dry salad that’s difficult to swallow.
– A fine dice of “filler” vegetables such as carrot, zucchini, and radish (optional; I usually do this to beef up the salad since meat tends to be pricey, and to add nutritional value. The Thais don’t do this!)
– finely sliced mushrooms (amount equal to about 5 button mushrooms; optional. Again, the Thais don’t do this, but fried and slightly caramelized mushrooms add bulk and an earthy flavor)
– 1/2 cup each of cilantro, mint, and Thai basil. Use a technique called the chiffonade if you can, or just roughly chop using the rock ‘n’ roll or rock chop.
– 3 small shallots, finely sliced (think half-moon rings)
– 4 tbsp raw white rice (I have used long-grain and basmati with reasonable success, although sticky rice is best)

1. If using, fry mushrooms until golden. Set aside. In the same pan, fry – on a lower heat to just cook through – your veggie mince, also if using.
2. In a pan, cook your pork in a little oil, breaking it up into mince as you go along. Do NOT fry until crispy or brown; you’re looking for pork that’s cooked through but still soft enough to absorb lots of flavor.
3. Meanwhile, in a smaller pan, dry-toast your rice until golden-brown. Using a mortar and pestle or spice/coffee grinder, bash or blitz into submission. Here’s a link to the most amazing blogger on Thai food I know explaining the process and the practice itself.
4. When your pork’s just cooked through, turn the heat off and add the shallots. You don’t need to cook them; you just want to take out some of that pungent onion-y flavor.
5. To your pork, add all the herbs, dressing ingredients, mushrooms and veggies (if using) and toasted rice. Keep sampling, and add fish sauce and lime juice to taste. Then add chili flakes to taste.
6. Garnish with more herbs, and serve with iceberg lettuce in the form of lettuce wraps, atop a bed of white rice, or with sticky rice accompanied by a plate of fresh veggies like yardlong/Chinese long beans and cucumbers. ออมนอมนอมนอม!

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