Text & Pictures: Naruemon Chomdock
A few years ago, I found a westerner making a big scene in a little Larb restaurant because he didn’t get the right Larb (minced pork salad). I had to intervene and tell him that what he expected was Larb from Northeastern Thailand (Esarn), but he was now in a Northern Thai style Larb restaurant, which offers a different dish. Northern Thai Larb consists of minced pork, intestines, pork fat, various spices and herbs whereas Esarn Larb has minced pork, chili flakes, rice powder, ginger, lime, and fresh herbs. Their tastes are indeed different. For westerners, raw Larb may be a bit too much…but if you could eat beef tartare, then why don’t you give Larb a try?
Larb (ลาบ) has the same pronunciation as “good luck” in Thai (ลาภ), and funny enough, eating larb is said to bring you luck. Eating this dish at the very beginning of the year (during Songkran) will mean good fortune for the whole coming year. Also, Larb in past Northern Thailand culture was a luxury dish which could only be eaten during big festivals or important occasions. When I was young, in every party held in the village, the hosts’ backyard would become a slaughtering area of a cow, buffalo, and pig. After killing, and crafting the meat, it was taken straight to the kitchen to make Larb which was considered to be the best quality of meat for the cooks. The blood used in Larb has to be blood from the neck area, which is the best and the freshest; this quality adds to the natural sweetness. Buffalo Larb tends to be more popular than beef or pork.
Larb is a very detailed dish: in different areas, the cook has a different way of seasoning, choosing herbs and also balancing the right amount of spices. Spices used in Larb are as follows: chilies, coriander seeds, peppercorns, Indonesian long peppers (or Deepli in Thai), star anise, mace, nutmeg, cloves, cardamom, cumin seeds, dried ginger, cinnamon, Makwaen, and Malaeb (the two last ones are local spices). Once collected, the spices are roasted together in a wok and then pounded into powder using a mortar and pestle. Some of those spices have significant medical benefits, such as helping kill parasites in meat, and even helping with the digestion process.
Prepare yourself a bit
For people who are not familiar with raw food, you could try Larb Kua–the cooked version of Larb, topped with crunchy deep fried garlic, this dish goes very well with newly steamed sticky rice and a bunch of fresh herbs. To prepare yourself to try this dish you should just tell yourself “When in Thailand, do as the Thais do.” Most of the locals do not speak English, so going with your Thai friends would be best. Larb is like a salad, so if they start mixing it and then leave it for too long the taste and quality will not be as good. Some shops just mix the meat and spices one dish at a time, but if they make it in the enormous amount make sure that there are a lot of people coming to the shop, so the mixed Larb stays fresh.
Different Larb Restaurants
(Mostly sell Beef Larb and pork Larb and some of the local favorite dishes)
Pramuan Larb Dee Khom
For taxi: ประมวลลาบดีขมประตูสวนดอก
Open: around 2-3 pm.
The good thing about this restaurant is that the dish is quite small you could try, and if you don’t like it–just leave it. The restaurant is busy most of the time; so the better time for experimenting is around 2-3 pm.
Larb Kuang Sing
For taxi: ร้านลาบข่วงสิงห์ ก่อนถึงตลาดบริบูรณ์ ข่วงสิงห์
Open: 7.00 am- 8 pm.
Getting a bit further from town at the starting point of Highway 108 heading to Mae Rim, there is a Larb Yong (a minority group of Dai people) restaurant. They have cooked Larb every day for several decades. The shop owner is friendly, and if you don’t like their Larb, another plan is to try their mixed grilled platter–it is so good too!
Larb Khom Ton Kham
For taxi: ร้านลาบขมต้นขาม จากกาดสามแยก อยู่ซ้ายมือก่อนถึงแยกแม่ย่อยสันทรายน้อย
Open: 10.00 am- 2 pm.
This restaurant is a bit far out of the city, but the great thing is they do everything dish by dish. This restaurant is one of the top Larb restaurants in Chiang Mai. They are also reputable for their Northern Thai food, so if you would like to eat like the locals–this one is a “should not miss.”
Long Koi Larb Khom
For taxi: ร้าน ลองกอยลาบขม สันทรายน้อย
Open: 9.00 am- 6 pm.
This restaurant is the closest version of Larb to my family’s recipe, with the same level of spiciness and aroma. Therefore, I like this one the most! At the back of the restaurant, there is a big ice container where they store over 30 different herbs to eat with Larb, and each of them has different tastes and various medicinal benefits. This restaurant is busy most of the time. Another recommended dish apart from Larb is Northern Thai Style beef jerky.
Small Cow market in Mae Yoi: กาดงัวแม่ย่อยสันทรายน้อย
Open: Friday, Monday 6.00 am – 10.00 am
Thoung Fah Bod in Sanpatong: กาดงัวทุ่งฟ้าบด สันป่าตอง
Open: Saturday 5.00 am – 11.00 am
Getting a bit hardcore to a macho community of Buffalo and Cow markets there are two of them that are still the same as the old days. One is in Sansai Noi, and the other one is in Sanpatong. Over there you will hardly find women, except for the vendors. This place is rough, so forget about cleanliness, and enjoy the exceptional delicious dishes!