15 April 2010

Lahp and sticky rice - the beginning of a Northeastern Thai meal

If you want to dive into authentic Thai cuisine, here’s a great dish to begin with.  This is the beginning of a rural meal with roots in the poor, northeastern part of the country known as Issan.  Lahp was originally made with intestines and other bits of offal, and the heavy seasoning gave flavor to the only bits of meat the very poor could afford. Nowadays, it’s made with a range of meats – pork, duck, and chicken – but pork remains the most common. This highly seasoned dish is served with sticky rice and slices of cool cucumber and fresh basil leaves on the side.

Special equipment: stone mortar and pestle for the lahp and a clay mortar and pestle for the somtom (recipe coming in a later post.) Here’s a reason to buy two pieces of kitchen gear, one of which (the stone one) is absolutely indispensible for cooking Thai food. A stone mortar and pestle is used in this dish for crushing uncooked, dry-fried sticky rice rice into a fine powder. No other piece of equipment will adequately pulverize the rice. But, if you don’t have one, continue on with this recipe – a bean/spice grinder will do the job well enough for your initial forays into making lahp! But over time, a granite mortar and pestle is invaluable if you cook Thai food.

¾ - 1 pound pork. Let me suggest that you don’t buy ground pork unless necessary. Here’s why. If you buy an inexpensive piece of pork, say, pork shoulder, you can mince it the way Thais do, giving it a texture that’s not as uniform as meat that goes through a big grinder. Put the meat on a sturdy wood cutting block, and using a big knife, start chopping. You need a knife with a little heft, and one that has a mostly straight blade. Keep chopping using a rapid up-down motion, scraping the meat back together when it starts to spread out too far, turning it every so often to ensure you’re chopping it in different directions. The main thing to pay attention to is that strings of fat, sinew, or tissue don’t hold together, giving you a long string of partially chopped meat. After a few minutes it’ll begin to look minced, and when you’ve got a nice, fine mince, you’re done.

2 cups pahk chee farang ผักชีฝรั่ง, not well known in English but variously called culantro, sawtooth coriander or long leaf cilantro. Eryngium Foetidum. It’s a long, thin, green leaf, 6”- 8” long, perhaps as wide as a butter knife with a serrated edge. I can regularly find it fresh in Asian markets, and prefer it over mint, which can also be used. If you use the long leaf cilantro, chop it into pieces about ½”. Be generous with your measuring.

Roast 2 tbsp uncooked sticky rice in dry frying pan until it’s a pretty, golden brown. Roasting the uncooked rice gives it a deep, nutty taste, and it acts as a binder, as well, absorbing some of the the scant liquid that remains after the pork is cooked. I have a very small cast iron pan I use for this. Over medium heat I add the rice and gently shake the pan, keeping the rice in constant motion. Regular motion is especially important towards the end of the roasting time, when a little distraction can lead to burnt rice. Luckily, it’s only a few tablespoons and you can do it again! Dump into mortar and pestle (or spice grinder) and add 1 tsp salt. Pulverize in mortar and pestle until a fine powder. Be patient; it takes quite awhile. Set aside in small bowl.

Roast 20-30 dried Thai chili peppers in pan. (Those quantities are from the original recipe I first wrote in Thai. American tastes will probably think 6-10 chilies are adequate.) Using the same pan as the one used for the rice, dry roast the chilies until they’re charred; be careful, the smoky oil the cooking chilies can be an irritant. Crush in mortar, but keep chunky. There should be bits of skin from the peppers that are larger than what you’d find in a shake jar of “crushed chili peppers”. Set aside in small bowl.

Thinly slice 3-4 shallots. Set aside in small bowl.
Thinly slice 2-3 scallions. Set aside in small bowl.
Juice from 1 lime. Squeeze and set aside in small bowl.

Mince ¾ - 1 lb pork, chicken, duck or beef. In small sauce pan on stove, cook meat in a little water – maybe ½ to ¾ cup -- until cooked through. It should only take a few minutes. Take off stove.

Add lime juice and stir
Add fish sauce and stir
Taste. Correct balance of sour/salt, if necessary
Add crushed peppers – don’t add the whole amount at once if you’re not sure of your enjoyment of heat. Stir
Add crushed rice and mix in
Add shallots
Add scallions and stir
Add mint/ pahk chi farang and mix
Put in serving bowl
Sprinkle additional mint leaves on top

Eat with sticky rice and cold beer.

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