This tasty Thai larb gai recipe makes a classic spicy minced chicken salad from Thailand that is super easy to cook, comes together in minutes, and is very versatile. Adapted from chef David Thompson’s chicken larb recipe from his Thai Street Food cookbook, this is a gently-spiced ground chicken salad, however, you can easily heat things up with more chillies.
Made with minced chicken breast that’s quickly stir-fried in chicken stock, fish sauce, lime juice, salt, sugar, garlic, and shallots, this light Thai ground chicken salad is combined with loads of fresh fragrant herbs and sprinkled with chilli flakes and toasted rice. It’s served with crunchy vegetables such as cabbage, cucumbers, and snake beans, and eaten with steamed jasmine rice or sticky rice.
This easy recipe makes a classic Thai larb gai or ground chicken salad – gai or kai is chicken in Thai and laab, also written as laab, laap, larp, lap, and lab are the Thai, Lao and Khmer names for this type of minced meat salad that’s found right across northern Southeast Asia, in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar’s Shan States, and China’s southwest Yunnan. Vietnam has a similar salad but the pieces of meat are larger.
This Thai larb gai should probably then be called a Southeast Asian minced chicken salad, as it’s the same as Cambodia’s lab moan. Although I know a few Laos and Lao-Americans who would argue that this ground meat salad is a Lao specialty with its provenance in Laos. It also probably existed in the Khmer Empire. We’ll also share some Lao laap recipes in the future.
Today we’re sharing a Thai larb gai adapted from David Thompson’s Thai Street Food cookbook, as it was at a Thai restaurant in Sydney in the 1980s that we first tried the Thai minced salad in its many forms – chicken, pork and beef – and it’s pretty much the version we’ve been making for 35 years, long before moving to Southeast Asia. Before I tell you more about this Thai larb gai recipe, I have a favour to ask.
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Thai Larb Gai Recipe for a Spicy Minced Chicken Salad from Thailand
This Thai larb gai recipe makes a milder and more gently spiced central Thai take on the ground chicken salad that Thais think of as a northern Thai and northeastern Thai minced chicken salad. In the northern Thai Lanna region, larbs are earthier, richer and spicier, while in the northeastern Thai Isaan region, larbs tend to be more fiery.
In ancient Khmer or Pre-Angkorian Khmer, a much older language than both Thai and Lao, the word ‘lap’ – which appears on Khmer Empire temple inscriptions – has several meanings, but one of those means to strike or pound repeatedly.
Traditionally the meat for this Thai larb gai and other Southeast Asian ground meat salads would have been pounded in a mortar and pestle. These days the meat tends to be chopped rapidly with a cleaver on a cutting board. It’s impressive to watch.
The Lao people have a strong affection for larb, so much so that it’s often called the national dish of Laos and is said to have originated in Laos, specifically the northern Lao Isan part of northeast Thailand, which we know of as Isaan.
In the modern Khmer language, Isan came from the ancient Pre-Angkorian Khmer word Isana, which meant ‘the northeast’, and came from the ancient Sanskrit word ‘Isana’, which meant ‘of Siva, regent of the northeast’.
Isanapura was ‘Siva’s town’, the capital of the ancient Khmer kingdom of Chenla (which came before Angkor), now known as Sambor Prei Kuk, a magnificent sprawling city of splendid ruins set within towering forest in Cambodia’s rural Kampong Thom province.
It’s also worth noting, that at the peak of its power, Cambodia’s Khmer Empire’s stretched all the way to the border of Southern China’s Dali Kingdom, dominating over the territory that centuries later would become Laos.
I’ve long wondered how we’d think about and how we’d categorise these kinds of multinational or regional dishes if national borders and national cuisines didn’t exist and that will be the subject of a future book – when we eventually finish our Cambodia culinary history and cookbook. For now, just a few quick tips to making this Thai larb gai recipe.
Tips to Making this Thai Larb Gai Recipe for a Spicy Minced Chicken Salad
I only have a few quick tips to making this Thai larb gai recipe as it’s so easy. We use a round bottomed wok to make this Thai larb gai recipe and work very quickly, stirring the minced chicken continuously to ensure it all breaks apart, so that it isn’t lumpy. You need to work quickly as you want the chicken just-cooked, which should only take a few minutes.
I have to confess that when we first started making this Thai larb gai recipe, I used to add all kinds of spices, so it probably tasted like something more akin to a northern Thai larb. This is a central Thai style so it’s gently spiced and not fiery like the larbs in northeastern Thailand.
If you prefer more heat, either add more chilli flakes or serve some finely sliced medium-sized chillies (the ones we get here can be very fiery but generally they’re mild), or even some hot birds eye chillies, on the side, which you can add when you sit down to eat.
Here in Cambodia, if you order a larb at a street food eatery you’ll find a caddy of condiments on the table, such as sugar, fish sauce, chilli sauce, and limes, so individuals can adjust the balance of flavours to their liking. If you over-do the chillies, highly recommend adding a little of each.
When it comes to fish sauce, as usual we recommend using Thai fish sauce with Thai food, Cambodian fish sauce with Cambodian food, Vietnamese fish sauce with Vietnamese sauce, etc, so for this Thai larb gai recipe, we recommend the Thai fish sauce by Megachef, which we like as it’s consistent in quality, not over-salty, and widely available outside Southeast Asia.
After transferring the larb to a serving plate, sprinkle on some toasted rice, either toasted rice powder or ground roasted rice called khao khua in Thai. Be generous with the fresh fragrant herbs and serve plenty of crunchy vegetables on the side, such as cucumbers, green beans, and cabbage, which can be used as a vehicle for eating the salad.
Also serve with steamed jasmine rice or opt for the northeastern style and sticky rice. Make sure the rice is ready and staying warm in the rice cooker or steamer before you even start cooking the larb gai. Another dish that pairs well with larb is this crispy puffy Thai omelette, kai jiew, which we love to douse in homemade Thai Sriracha sauce.
Thai Larb Gai Recipe
- 6 tbsp chicken stock
- ½ tsp salt
- ½ tsp white sugar
- 300 g chicken mince
- 2 garlic cloves
- 3 tbsp lime juice
- ½ tsp roasted chilli flakes
- 2 tbsp Thai fish sauce
- 3 small purple shallots finely sliced
- ½ cup fresh coriander
- ½ cup fresh mint
- 2 tbsp ground roasted rice
- To a flat-bottomed wok on medium heat, add chicken stock and season with salt and sugar.
- Add chicken mince and garlic and simmer until just cooked through, stirring continuously to break apart the chicken so it isn’t lumpy.
- Add lime juice, chilli flakes and fish sauce, and taste, adjusting the seasoning as necessary.
- Mix in the shallots, then half the fresh herbs, and taste to check the seasoning one last time – it should taste a little hot, sour and salty – then add more fish sauce, lime juice, salt, sugar, and chillies, to suit your taste.
- Transfer to a serving plate, sprinkle with toasted rice and the rest of the fresh herbs, and serve with crunchy vegetables, such as cucumbers, green beans, and cabbage, and steamed rice.
Please do let us know in the comments below if you make this Thai larb gai recipe for a spicy ground chicken salad as we’d love to know how it turns out for you.