The pork here is a weeknight-pantry-dive descendant of larb – a braised, ground meat salad originating in Laos and associated with Thailand – but is hardly what I would call faithful to its heritage. Truth be told, the meal doesn't follow the rules of any specific cuisine, but rather pulls from the collection of ingredients I usually have on hand – and ones I hope you might too.
It's a good dish for children because it offers the opportunity to pair heat with other flavours for balance, or skip it altogether. The pork is aromatic with Chinese Five Spice, but only has a background heat. Alongside pickled chilies and kimchi, I offer slightly subtler condiments.
First, mayonnaise with sriracha, where the fat of the former muffles the buzz of the latter. For a second, I soak pitted dates in boiling water, blitz those with gochujang, a splash of fresh orange juice and sesame oil in a food processor until smooth.
Children tend to be drawn to the sweetness of the sauce and, as gochujang is a fermented paste, its heat has a deeper resonance, rather than nasal burn.
Servings: 4 to 6
Five Spice Larb
2 tablespoons neutral oil, or bacon drippings, divided
4 shallots, 3 minced, 1 sliced lengthwise
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 pound good-quality ground pork, preferably not lean
1 cup chicken stock or water, divided
Kosher salt, as needed
2 tablespoons minced cilantro stems
1 tablespoon Chinese Five Spice
2 teaspoons soy sauce
2 teaspoons chili garlic sauce or sambal olek
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1 1/2 teaspoons honey
1/2 cup basil leaves, preferably Thai, loosely packed
1/2 cup cilantro leaves, loosely packed
1 fresh red chili, seeded if desired
Lettuce leaves suited for wraps (Boston, iceberg, or similar)
2 cups cooked sticky rice, hot
Gochujang date sauce
Julienned crunchy vegetables (carrots, daikon, or similar)
Basil, cilantro, mint leaves
Green onion, sliced thinly
Microgreens or sprouts
Sriracha Sesame Mayonnaise
1/2 cup mayonnaise
2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
A pinch of sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons sriracha, or to taste
Quick Pickled Vegetables
1/2 cup water
2 tablespoons sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons unseasoned rice wine vinegar
1 garlic clove
1 fresh red chili
Juice of 1 lime
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1/2 an English cucumber, thinly sliced
4 radishes, thinly sliced
Larb: In a large, heavy-bottomed skillet warm half the oil or drippings over medium-low heat. Sauté the minced shallots for 2 to 3 minutes, then add the garlic. Continue to cook, stirring, until the shallots are soft but without colour, maybe 2 more minutes. Transfer the shallots and garlic to a small bowl and set aside.
In the same skillet, heat the remaining oil over medium-high heat. Once hot, tumble in the pork, breaking it up with a spoon. Fry, stirring frequently, until the pork is is no longer pink on the surface and it is fairly crumbled, 5 to 7 minutes (it will not be cooked through).
Pour in 1/2 cup of stock. Season lightly with salt and cover, then lower the heat to maintain the barest simmer. Let cook for 5 minutes. Remove the lid, bring the heat back up to medium high and stir. Keep turning the meat until most of the liquid has cooked away. Stir in the cilantro stems and sprinkle over the Chinese Five Spice, tossing the meat thoroughly. Quickly whisk the soy sauce, chili sauce, honey, and cornstarch into the remaining stock.
Fold the reserved shallot mixture into the meat. Once the pork is sizzling, pour the seasoned stock around the pan, stirring all the while. After the stock bubbles up and starts to cook off, stop stirring. Leave the meat to catch against the pan in places (this will make for the crispiest bits), then stir to dislodge any crust and flip. Repeat the routine of leaving to stick, then turning the pork for 3 to 5 minutes, or until the meat is golden brown, glazed, and fairly dry. Pull the pan from the heat.
Chop the herbs and chili together on a board. Toss the herb flecks with the sliced shallot. Fold the mix into the hot pork and serve with freshly cooked rice and lettuce wraps for eating and whatever garnishes you like. Have the Sriracha Sesame Mayonnaise and Quick Pickled Vegetables on the table.
Note: To dull the bite of the raw shallot, soak the slices in ice cold water before use.
Sriracha Sesame Mayonnaise (makes just more than 1/2 a cup): In an appropriate bowl, stir the sesame oil and sugar into the mayonnaise. Either marble the sriracha into the mayonnaise or stir to completely combine. Cover and refrigerate until needed, at least 30 minutes and up to overnight.
Note: Japanese Kewpie mayonnaise is my preferred here for its consistency and tang.
Quick Pickled Vegetables (makes about 1 cup): Bring the water, sugar and vinegar to a boil in a non-reactive saucepan. While the liquid is getting hot, Pound the garlic and chili together in a mortar and pestle, or mince/mash to a paste with a knife. As soon as the liquid is bubbling, spoon in the garlic and chili, then stir in the lime juice and fish sauce. Set aside to cool for 5 minutes. Pour the liquid over the vegetables in a jar or something similar. Cover and chill until cold.
Note: Instead of the fresh garlic and chili, 2 teaspoons chili garlic paste can be used. The vegetables can be made up to a few hours ahead, but soften more than I like if left overnight.