What is laab kai?
Laab kai (pronounced “laab gai”) is a minced chicken salad. The Thai word, “laab” means chopped. In this case, it is chicken (gai) that is chopped, but there are also other types of laab, for example, with duck, catfish, pork or beef. Essential in laab kai is an aromatic powder of roasted ground sticky rice (khao krua). The dish is served with sticky rice, fresh herbs and lettuce or leafy vegetables.
The dish, laab comes from Northeast Thailand and is also on the menu in Laos. In these regions, you will find countless eateries, street vendors and home cooks specialising in this dish. It is eaten at low tables surrounded by groups of all ages. They enjoy the laab together and use the sticky rice as an edible spoon to scoop up small portions.
Did you know?
There are different versions of laab that are only for real diehards. For “laab dip”, the minced meat is not fried but eaten raw. Sometimes the dish is made from water buffalo, sometimes flavoured with bitter bile (laab khom) or pig’s blood, and sometimes it contains stewed pieces of gut. Don’t be scared: laab kai is a much easier version to tackle!
How to make laab kai
The first step is the most important: chopping the meat. According to traditional practice, the meat must be finely chopped by hand – Thai people often have a separate knife for this that is only used for laab. It is a tiring job, but the result is very different from when you start with chicken from the mincer. For the best version, nothing but muscle power is used.
The chopped chicken is cooked with a little water until tender. That only takes a few minutes. After it has cooled slightly, the chicken is mixed with seasonings and flavourings, such as chilli powder, fish sauce, lime juice, spring onion, fresh herbs and roasted rice powder. The result tastes fresh, sour, salty and spicy at the same time.
How to eat
Laab kai is served with sticky rice, herbs and vegetables, such as cucumber and lettuce. You eat the laab by breaking off a bit of sticky rice, rolling it into a ball and using it to scoop a little laab. You can also use a salad leaf as a spoon.
Goi ga is the Vietnamese take on chicken salad. Vietnamese cuisine also sometimes uses pig’s blood, but in the form of solidified cubes. For example in the bun bo nam bo. The Thai dish, nam tok also contains that special ingredient: roasted ground sticky rice.