Laab Kai (Chopped Chicken Salad)

Here’s my recipe for Laab Kai, taught to me by some Lao refugees we sponsored years ago. I have no idea whether the use of bean sprouts is usual or not, but that how they cooked it, so that’s how I make it, and I think it adds a nice textural contrast. If you can’t get really fresh, crisp bean sprouts, simply omit them.

Utensils: To make the Kao Neow (sweet, or glutinous, rice) that is a staple of Lao cuisine, you need a rice steamer. This is a two part item – the bottom is a tall aluminum pot with an hour-glass figure, the top is woven bamboo. They should be available from any Thai grocery.  As a substitute, use a colander lined with cheesecloth, set over a deep stockpot (no water must touch the rice!). A heavy stone mortar and pestle is also essential. You might also want a Lao rice basket to serve the rice in, so that residual steam doesn’t condense and make it wet. These are available at Thai groceries. If you can’t get one, substitute a bamboo mat,

Before you make Laab, you have to make Kao Khua, the ground roasted rice that acts as a flavoring and absorbs juices that might otherwise make the dish soggy.

Kao Khua – Ground roasted sweet rice

Have a bowl ready by the stove. Set a heavy cast iron skillet over high heat for two minutes, then pour in raw sweet rice (kao neow) to cover the bottom in one layer. Reduce heat to medium and toast, stirring constantly until the grains are a rich deep golden brown. Pour at once into the bowl and let it cool completely. Store unused Kao Khua in a jar with a tight-fitting lid. It doesn’t have to be refrigerated, and will keep indefinately. To use in a recipe, grind it in a mortar until it’s the consistancy of fine cornmeal.

Note: You can also put the skillet in a slow oven, stirring the rice occasionally, until it browns.

It wouldn’t be Laab without Nam Jeow to dip the rice in. This is our favorite:

8 serrano chilies
4 medium scallions
2 large pieces of heavy-duty aluminum foil.
1 T. fish sauce (or more, to taste)

Trim the serranos and slice them in two lengthwise. Seed all or half of them, depending on how hot you want your Nam Jeow to be. Lay them on a piece of foil big enough to accomodate them in a single layer with enough left over to fold over them twice. Twist the packet at the ends to seal it. Trim the scallions and cut them lengthwise, and then into 2″ sections. Wrap them in foil as you did the serranos. Set the packages directly over a stove burner set on low. Turn and rotate them every now and then until the contents are limp and most pieces are almost completely charred. Remove them (including all charred bits) to a mortar and mash to a paste. It should be a very dark green, almost black. There won’t be much, but a little goes a long way. Put the paste in a small bowl, add the fish sauce and mix well.

Kao Neow – Steamed sweet rice.

Use a Thai sweet rice – the Japanese variety (mochi) is too short-grained.

Measure out 1/2 cup of raw rice per person, or more. Wash it in a seive under running cold water, then put in as large a pot as possible and fill it with warm water. Let the rice soak for 3 to 4 hours, then drain it. Put two or three inches of water in the bottom of a rice steamer and bring it to a boil over high heat. Place the bamboo top in the steamer and pour the drained rice into it. Steam undisturbed and uncovered, until all the rice has turned translucent (kao neow is opaque when raw, unlike regular rice). At this point, you can shake the top to flip the ball of rice over, to make sure that it steams evenly. When the rice is all cooked and tender, remove the basket and fluff it with a wooden fork or spoon. Transfer to one large or several individual Lao rice baskets and put the tops on to keep the rice until you’re ready to serve it.

While you’re waiting for the rice to cook, you can start the Laab.

1 1/2 cups bean sprouts
2 lbs chicken breasts with skin
2 tsp minced garlic
3 tsp minced seeded green chilies (serrano or jalapena)
2 T. ground kao khua
2 T. fresh lemon juice
2 – 3 T. fish sauce
the bean sprouts
1/2 cup chopped coriander (leaves and smaller stems)
2/3 cup chopped scallions

Vegetable platter (optional, but nice to have)
Leaf lettuce
more coriander
more scallions

Bring 3 qts water to a boil and add the bean sprouts. Leave them in for 15 seconds, then drain them, rinse under cold water, and set aside until needed.

Skin and bone the chicken breasts, reserving the skin and any attached fat. Finely chop the chicken meat with a cleaver.

Set a 12″ wok over medium heat and add the chicken skin. When the pieces stiffen up and become opaque, remove the wok from the heat. Chop the skin into 1/4″ pieces. Return the chopped skin to the wok and stir-fry over medium heat until the fat is all rendered out. Add the garlic and chilies and stir-fry until the garlic is golden brown. Add the chopped chicken meat and sitr-fry, turning the meat and mashing it to break up all the lumps. When the chicken meat is completely cooked, transfer it and all its juices to a large serving bowl. Add the kao khua, lemon juice and fish sauce. Mix well, then add the bean sprouts, chopped coriander and chopped scallions. Mix well again. Serve at room temperature with the kao neow, the nam jeow dipping sauce, and the vegetable platter.

To eat Laab, take a small ball of kao neow and flatten it slightly between your fingers and your thumb. Dab it onto the nam jeow and then use it to pick up a small bit of Laab. Pop it in your mouth, or wrap it in a piece of lettuce leaf with whatever else you want from the vegetable platter.

Laab can sit for a few hours at room temperature. It should not be refrigerated before serving, as it will congeal. Leftovers should be refrigerated, though, and can be eaten cold the next day. Leftover kao neow should not be refrigerated. It will harden slightly overnight, but I love to eat it the next morning with whatever nam jeow is left over (assuming there is any, which in my household is doubtful, since it’s addictive). If you want your leftover kao neow to be hot, simply re-steam it.

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