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The Chef in Charlotte: Shiitake Larb

I wasn't planning to double down on my Lao food posts, but holy shit people... this recipe.

Larb has been called the national dish of Laos. Usually made with ground meat, it's a mélange of protein, allium, and spices finished off with the usual suspects of southeast Asian flavor, like ginger, fish sauce, lime juice, and herbs like mint and cilantro, which is then served in a lettuce or cabbage "tortilla" of sorts.

When I ate at Rooster and Owl in DC a couple summers back, one of the best dishes we sampled was a larb made from shiitake mushrooms instead of ground meat. Our server told us that they'd been making beef larb and one night a customer asked if it could be made vegetarian. Chef dug out some shiitakes and replaced the beef with them. After a while, they became so happy with the dish, realizing it "actually tasted better than the meat version," so they made it a staple on the menu.

Rooster and Owl's significantly more polished version of shiitake larb

Since then I've been meaning to deploy a proper shiitake larb recipe in my kitchen, and I thought with the shipment of Lao spices from Spice Madam, there was no time like the present. I used this recipe as a base and then made a couple variations.

I did my shopping at Trader Joes, which only had massive quantities of green onions to sell as packs, so I went with the less voluminous leeks instead, making this a shiitake and leek larb. To start, I prepped the leeks by cleaning, then sliced the shiitake caps and leeks, and minced the garlic, ginger, dried chilis, peanuts, and shallots. The shiitakes cook in olive oil first––you want to a) not crowd them, so they all get contact with the hot pan, and b) leave them alone in the hot oil so they get a nice brown crisp on the one side. The aromas of the cooking shiitakes will begin to flood your kitchen. It's glorious.

After the shiitakes are nice and brown, stir them up and cook and bit more on all sides before adding in the ginger, leek, and garlic. I added a tiny bit of soy sauce here for salinity as well, sautéing everything until fragrant. Afterwards, I removed the pan from heat, adding in the minced shallots and chilis along with a healthy splash of fish sauce and a dash of lime juice. Letting these warm a bit, melding the flavors, I put the pan back on the still-hot burner just briefly, then served on a plate with some separated leaves of green cabbage and peanuts.

You fill the cabbage leaves with larb and top with peanuts and a squeeze of lime, then eat like a taco. I had forgotten to include mint in the sauté pan at the end, so I just added some mint leaves to the top. This dish is so unbelievably tasty; I can't praise it more highly. It's just loaded with flavor, and incredibly healthy. Mushrooms are often overlooked as a source of nutrients, and there is little in here that will fatten you up.

I think I can safely say this dish will be in my regular rotation now! Best of all, you can make a big batch of it and then save it for lunches and dinners later.

Man, the cuisine of southeast Asia is speaking to me these days; I'd say I eat Asian food more often than just about anything, at least recently, and it's starting to show in my waistline, where I am beginning to finally lose a little bit of that "pandemic pudge."

Beer to cook by: Charlotte is a beer city––one of the best in the country––and so my local supermarket is teeming with options for the beer lover. I do love beer as well, though I drink considerably less of it, and have been enjoying exploring the beer offerings in this city. Sycamore Brewing is a local spot, and this evening I drank a can of their grapefruit-flavored göse, a sour, salty beer modeled after the Paloma cocktail, which was perfect with the larb's lime and fish sauce essence, though I had to have a sip of milk from time to time to tame the slow burn of the chilis! Remember, folks, beer can also form an ideal pairing!

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