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Larb is a popular Southeast Asian dish usually described as a type of cooked salad. Incorporating ingredients common to the region, it is traditionally very spicy. There is some friendly debate between the countries of Thailand and Laos, but most people agree that the dish, which includes meat as a main ingredient, originated in Laos.
The lineage of the Lao people live in both Laos and the northeastern region of Thailand called Isan, so it's not unusual that the dish is found in both areas. It is eaten throughout Laos to the extent that the dish blurs the distinction between condiment, cold salad appetizer, and warm meat main course. It is regarded as the national dish of Laos.
The name is an inexact phonetic translation, so it is common to see larb spelled laap, larp, or laab. As Thai cuisine has gained popularity throughout much of the world, it is often to be found within the menu of Thai restaurants. Though ethnically and culturally distinct, the Hmong people of the same region have also come to adopt this cuisine of Laos as their own.
Larb is a meat dish. In fact, almost any type of protein can be used, from pork to duck and even fish. The meat is most commonly minced or ground, but it can also be prepared sliced or diced. There are also several raw meat preparations, so it is well advised to inquire when ordering this dish at a restaurant.
The heat in larb comes from chili pepper, either fresh, dried, or in paste form. The dish also has a sour taste, with acid from lime juice and sometimes lemongrass. Other flavorings vary by region, and may include pungent fish sauce.
All of the ingredients are cooked together with an aromatic vegetable, usually finely diced onion but also perhaps shallot or green onion. Although uncommon outside of Laos and Thailand, strictly traditional larb also incorporates coarsely ground toasted rice. The dish is finished with a generous garnish of fresh torn mint, cilantro, or basil leaves. Other finishing touches might include chopped roasted peanuts or crispy fried garlic chips.
The cooked concoction is usually served at room temperature. It is almost always served with a side of assorted raw vegetables, such as string beans, shredded cabbage, or papaya. A very popular vegetable accompaniment is large leaves of lettuce onto which scoops of larb are laid and wrapped to be eaten without utensils.