If you are asking yourself, ‘what the heck is larb?’ then you haven’t had the good sense to order larb at a Thai or Laotian restaurant, because that’s what I did a few years ago and never forgot it.
This is Vegan Larb.
Now, if it’s on the menu, I’ll order it. Except for one thing: it’s a meat salad – heavy on the meat. Wikipedia tells me larb is a minced meat salad and it is considered the national dish of Laos. But like most traditional foods, it has made its way beyond the borders and there are variations aplenty. I have only had it at Thai restaurants and I have never seen it on any restaurant’s menu with a ‘meat substitute’. But then I haven’t been everywhere. If there is a place in Southern California that serves vegetarian or vegan larb, I want to go to there.
Larb is a unique combination of seasonings and spices and the resulting flavor is mysterious and addictive. It doesn’t remind me of anything else, or taste like any other dish – as for me, anyway. Once you’ve had it, you want it again. And again.
This vegan version is made with tofu, shredded and then braised with the spices. So the really nifty thing about it is it’s all international-like and cool but it’s really quickly made – like no hassle at all. Not that I don’t thoroughly enjoy an ingredient list with 15 items and 4 pages of step-by-step instructions…
The larb is usually served with rice and lettuce leaves, so I jumped on the cauliflower rice bandwagon, made mine with lime and cilantro, and managed to keep this a very low-carb dish. And it was so good I almost ate it all before I took the pictures.
There are a few ingredients that can’t be found at your average supermarket: kaffir lime leaves, galangal powder, and toasted rice powder. I happen to have an Asian market within walking distance when I’m pretending I’m the kind of person that will walk instead of drive, and the woman behind the customer service counter was exceptionally helpful, gathering all my goodies for me, since I couldn’t understand the signs or packaging.
If you can’t get kaffir lime leaves, you can zest some key limes or regular limes. If you can’t get galangal – either fresh or powder – you can use ginger; I would grate fresh ginger, as opposed to using ground ginger. And you can make your own toasted rice powder by toasting some sticky (raw) rice in a dry heavy skillet and then grinding it in a spice grinder. I would really try to get the galangal, though. While it is similar to ginger, it is not ginger, and I think the galangal is important to the unique flavor of larb.
The other issue: Fish sauce. Larb is often, even usually, made with fish sauce. There are a few off-the-shelf non-fish fish sauces, and many vegetarian or vegan fish sauce recipes out there in Google-land. They often call for some kind of seaweed, like wakame, and mushroom soy sauce. If you have a brand or a recipe that you like, go for it. I did not use seaweed. I just combined mushroom sauce with a little miso for the umami factor. It probably isn’t as fishy as it should be, but I think it worked perfectly. The nutrition information included the miso and mushroom sauce – but it doesn’t amount to much, except for sodium, of course.
- 1 tablespoon canola oil
- 12 ounces extra firm tofu - drained and pressed
- 2 to small shallots, minced
- 3 to 4 scallions, white and a bit of the green part, finely chopped
- 1 stalk lemongrass, minced (just the bottom 2 to 3 inches)
- 4 to 5 teaspoons Thai chili powder
- 2 teaspoons galangal powder
- 1 1/2 tablespoons toasted rice powder
- 3 tablespoons vegan fish sauce (see notes)
- 4 kaffir lime leaves, minced
- 1 1/2 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro
- 1 tablespoon minced mint
- scant 1/4 cup vegetarian chicken broth
- 3 tablespoons lime juice
- rice and lettuce leaves for serving
Grate the tofu. I use a box grater. I have not attempted to use a food processor for this; I think it would result in tofu mush.
Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed skillet over medium-high heat. Add the tofu, shallots, and scallions. Gently stir or shake pan while vegetables and tofu cook.
Add the lemongrass, chili powder, galangal powder and toasted rice powder. Continue cooking and stirring/shaking gently so tofu doesn't stick.
Add the fish sauce, lime juice and the vegetarian chicken broth. Lower heat and simmer until most of the liquid has cooked off. Add the cilantro and mint at the very end.
**For the fish sauce, I used about 3 tablespoons vegetarian mushroom sauce with 1 teaspoon red miso.
**For the vegetable broth, you can use any kind of vegetable broth, but I like a no-chicken chicken broth for this.
Nutrition Information (just the larb)
Total Calories: 161 | Total Calories from Fat: 68 | Total Fat: 8g | Saturated Fat: 1g | Trans Fat: 0g | Cholesterol: 0g | Sodium: 393mg | Total Carbs: 13g | Fiber: 1g | Sugars: 3g | Protein: 10g | Net Carbs: 12g
Served with the Cauliflower Rice with Lime and Cilantro, the calories are less than 250 per serving, and the net carbs are 17g.