This page is also available in: Thai
Laap is a top dish on the menus in Thai restaurants abroad, and is, unfortunately, being diminished – like their décor – by the oversimplified description, bland seasonings, and even by the wrong English transcription as “larp”.
Laap (ลาบ) is believed to originate from Yunnan province in Southwest China and is popular in Laos and the northern (Lanna) and northeastern (Isan) regions of Thailand.
Ingredients, preparation, spices, and herb combinations vary greatly from region to region and from one city to another, and also depend on the type of meat which is being used.
Generally speaking, laap is made from raw or cooked, minced meat, to which, depending on the type of laap and the region where it’s made, different ingredients and seasonings are added–the animal fat, skin, internal organs, blood, bile juice, and gastric juice, along with simple or complex flavorings, comprising at a time of up to twenty kinds of spices and over thirty types of herbs – in various combinations – create a wide range of principal dishes – namely: Laap (ลาบ), Saa (ส้า), Luu (หลู้), Koi (ก้อย gaawy), sohk-lek (ซกเล็ก), leuuat bplaaeng (เลือดแปลง), dtap waan (ตับหวาน) and the popular nam dtohk (น้ำตก).
Laap is prepared like a salad, by mixing all the ingredients together – minced meat, internal organs, other meat cuts, spice blends, seasonings, and herbs. It is served accompanied by a rich assortment of vegetables, young leaves, and herbs.
There are two main styles of laap – laap from Lanna and laap from Isan. The Lanna version, known as Laap Muang (ลาบเมือง), features a rich blend of dry spices, resulting in a mildly spicy, pungent, salty, and aromatic dish. There is no use of either lime juice or ground roasted rice in the Laap Muang. The seasoning blend of Laap Muang is called “naam phrik laap” (น้ำพริกลาบ), and contains sought-after spices, which were imported to the region by the trade caravans from India and China.
Laap Isan (ลาบอีสาน), on the other hand, is spicy, salty, and a bit sour with notes of nuttiness from the use of ground roasted rice. Laap Isan is seasoned with a simple blend of only a few ingredients: ground chili powder, lime juice, fish sauce, and ground roasted rice that serves also as a binder. The dish is then finished up with fresh herbs – spring onions, coriander, and mint leaves. Far off the ancient spice trade routes, Isan food makes no use of aromatic dry spices.
Both in Lanna and Isan, in raw laap of beef or buffalo, fresh blood, bile juice, and gastric juices are often added, the bitterness of which magically enhances the intrinsic sweetness of the raw meat.
All laap dishes, regardless of the meat type or its region, are lifted up with fresh herbs – coriander, spring onions, and mint leaves, among others – that add freshness and fragrance to the dish.
To complement the soft texture of the minced meat, just before serving, the dish is sprinkled with crunchy elements- fried crispy chilies, deep-fried crispy shallots and garlic, pieces of fried internal organs and crispy skins, or even deep-fried crispy fish scales.
Laap is a good example of Asian popular cuisine, where food is more than just a dish; it is an integral part of one’s culture and contains a distinct relationship between man, nature, and society – a relationship that should be treasured because it’s the one around which each dish was originally created – a fest believed to facilitate good health and bring good luck, an enjoyable time spent among friends, neighbors, and relatives.
Laap – An auspicious dish
The word ‘laap’ in Northern Thai language literally means the action of mincing meat. It is exactly with the same pronunciation but only with different spelling that one would describe unexpected gains, profits, and good luck (ลาภ).
In addition, big animals, like cows or buffalos, were praised and raised to work the rice paddies and not for their meat – the everyday diet consisted mainly of fruits and vegetables, fish, chicken, pork, or small animals that were gathered in the forest – buffalo and beef meat were scarce and expensive and therefore were eaten only on special occasions.
Laap is a complicated dish to prepare with many stages and ingredients involved – it’s a process which is both time- and labor-consuming – with friends and relatives all taking part and giving a helping hand. Cooking laap became an important thread in the social fabric and a central event in the village’s social activity.
The tedious process of making laap, the social activity associated around it, and the high price of its ingredients, gave it an added value – making it a dish suitable for and served in ceremonies and celebrations or offered to important guests.
Men’s health – laap, blood and alcohol (ลาบ หลู้ เหล้า)
While markets and kitchens used to be a female-only domain, laap was probably the only dish a man would ever cook and was probably not even eaten by women, at least not the raw version.
Raw laap is a dish full of testosterone, a manly brotherhood of butchering the animal and sharing the bravery of eating it uncooked with some of your friends and a lot of alcohol.
Roadside restaurants that specialize in laap, blood dishes, and alcoholic remedies for men are called “laap luu lao (ลาบ หลู้ เหล้า)”. These eateries are part of a macho subculture that is still vivid and very much alive at the grass roots of Northern Thailand and Isan culture. “Bitter to death, I will not protest” – is the popular saying to describe a scrumptious bitter raw laap (ขมตายบ่เอาเรื่อง – khohm dtaai baaw ao reuuang).
Laap and alcohol are closely paired; both are strong enough to stand up to each other and are acting as complements – on the one hand alcohol is believed to sterilize the raw meat from parasites, and on the other hand, the bitterness of both the laap and the accompanying vegetables facilitates smooth drinking – and together it’s regarded as a strong folk medicine believed to improve men’s vitality and strength.
Laap, besides being a potency enhancer, is nutritionally rich. It is a well-balanced dish, loaded with proteins and flavored with spice mixtures that pose potent medicinal properties and is accompanied by a variety of greens and vegetables which were carefully selected for their taste, scent, or therapeutic properties.
Spices, trade, and politics
Laap is a dish popular among the Tai Yuan (คนยวน) and the Tai Lu (ไทลื้อ) – two closely related Tai ethnic groups, with ties of language, history, and customs.
The Tai Yuan, (Khun Muang) are the majority of the population inhabiting the valleys and plains of present-day Northern Thailand and the former Lanna kingdom. They lived in self-sustained villages of rice growers; their economy was based mainly on production for household use. Their tradition shared an intimate relationship with the natural world mixed with Buddhist beliefs. They centered their everyday life activities around community, ceremony, and rituals.
The Tai Lu, who lived north to the Lanna kingdom as far as Sipsong Panna in Yunnan, the Shan (Burma), and Luang Prabang (Laos), shared a very similar culture with the Tai Yuan with variations only in details.
The fertile land of Northern Thailand attracted human migration from South and East Asia for thousands of years. The Tai Lu population migrated from the Shangri-La of Sipsong Panna in Yunnan province, along the plains of major rivers, and developed close ties with the villages of Northern Thailand through trade, politics, and religion.
Furthermore, because of the similarities in culture between the Tai Yuan and Tai Lu, when Lanna was short of manpower, the king would set out to forcibly relocate Tai Lu families to Lanna. The resettlements involved all social levels, from nobles to commoners. Resettled nobles were allowed to continue to govern their own people under the supervision of Lanna leaders and to keep their old cultural system. Even today, a few hundred years later, laap is a dish that is eaten by commoners and nobles alike.
Internal trade among nearby villages was limited and took place at occasional markets. People grew their own products such as vegetables, fruits, chicken, fish, and pork to exchange for goods from outside, such as clothes, kitchen utensils, and matches from Chinese and Burmese traders. At the local market, both traders and customers were only female, with the exception of the male pork sellers, the Burmese kitchenware merchant, or the male occasionally visiting the market in search of meat, spices, and herbs to prepare laap.
It was mainly the Chinese traders who conducted the long-distance caravan trade between Yunnan, Lanna, and Burma, carrying not only fermented tea and opium, spices and musk, wax and honey, betel and chilies, wool, cotton, and silk, or brass kitchen utensils but also culture – linking together people, traditions, and ideas along the fragrant and somewhat romantic spice trade routes.
Naam Phrik Laap (น้ำพริกลาบ) – Laap Muang flavoring agent
Naam Phrik Laap is at the heart and soul of Laap Muang (Lanna style laap) – it is the chili paste used as its main flavoring agent – referred to as the “black chili paste” (น้ำพริกดำ nam phrik dam) due to its dark color. Its quality is measured by the delicate balance of ingredients and is essential for the dish’s success. The flavor profile of Naam Phrik Laap is fiery-spicy, salty, and pungently perfumed.
In Northern Thai cuisine, Naam Phrik Laap is used as a flavoring agent in a range of other dishes beside laap – since laap is a salad-like dish where the ingredients are all mixed together, these dishes all have the prefix salad (ยำ yam) added to their name, even though they might be a soup or a curry-like dish.
In the early days, when laap was prepared in the village, the responsibility of making the Naam Phrik Laap for the occasion was at the hands of skilled individuals who would balance all the ingredients perfectly through talent and years of experience.
Nowadays, Naam Phrik Laap is commercially available and sold in the markets ready-made and pre-packed in small quantities under various brand names and with different spice combinations and flavor intensities. A big timesaver, the commercial Naam Phrik Laap made it possible for the average household to prepare and eat laap as an everyday dish.
Generally, one will choose the more pungent preparations for laap made using beef or buffalo meat due to their gamey taste and would reserve the milder brands for laap made of pork, chicken, and duck, or use it in other dishes as a flavoring agent.
There are many recipes for Naam Phrik Laap, all of which call for meticulously preparation of each of the ingredients separately – either by roasting, sun drying, and sometimes even pickling -before pounding them all together into a smooth paste, to which roasted shrimp paste and salt are added. The paste is dried, roasted, or fried, with just a little bit of oil, to ensure that all the flavors have melted into a completed product and that the paste water content is as low as possible to guarantee long shelf life.
- Dry chili peppers are charred and roasted to a dark, almost burnt color.
- Garlic, lemongrass, and coriander roots are roasted until fragrant.
- Mature galangal and mature ginger are sun-dried for few hours before being roasted.
- Shallots are either roasted, pickled, boiled, or used fresh.
- Fermented shrimp paste is being roasted in banana leaves (for aroma and food safety).
- Dry spices are roasted on low heat to release their aroma.
Coriander seeds (ลูกผักชี), makhwaen (zanthoxylum limon-ella alston มะแขว่น) and deebplee (Javanese long pepper ดีปลี), in almost equal quantities, account for about 80% of the spice mix. The rest are small quantities of cumin seeds (ยี่หร่า), sweet fennel (เทียนข้าวเปลือก), black pepper corns (พริกไทยดำ), nutmeg (ลูกจันทน์เทศ), mace (ดอกจันทน์เทศ), cinnamon (อบเชย), star anise (โป๊ยกั๊ก), cloves (กานพลู), sand ginger (เปราะหอม), dill seeds (มะแหลบ or เทียนตั๊กแตน) and cardamom (ลูกกระวาน).
Makhwaen, a relative of Szechuan pepper, and deebplee (long Indian pepper) are probably the most important spices in Naam Phrik Laap. They give it a unique, pungent heat spiciness and an unmistakable aroma with a mild sensation of numbness of the lips. The provinces of Phrae (แพร่) and Nan (น่าน) are famous of their use of high quantities of makhwaen and deebplee, resulting in what is considered to be the most pungent Naam Phrik Laap available.
In the northeastern parts of Lanna, mainly in the provinces of Lampoon and Chiang Mai, it is common to find Naam Phrik Laap that is perfumed with Chinese five spices mix, namely, cinnamon, star anise, cloves, peppercorns and fennel seeds.
Up in the northern provinces of Phayao and Chiang Rai, a distinct Naam Phrik Laap is made by also adding pickled shallots and pickled bird’s eye chilies to the mix, a practice similar to the use of pickled mustard leaves so loved by the Yunnanese.
The making of laap
Making laap is about mincing the meat to the right consistency. An art by itself, mincing the meat should be exclusively done by using a knife and cutting board with plain muscle force. The mincing is done gradually by pounding the meat with the knife. The experienced cook will add, from time to time, small amounts of fresh blood to adjust the consistency – it ought to be smooth, somewhat gummy, and should hold together. The preferred meat cuts for good laap are the sirloin or the round.
Consider the huge effort which was required to process large amounts of meat for a ceremony, the men sat in a circle, each holding two knives, and like a musical band, their pounding knife beat invited all the neighbors to join the fest.
The skin and internal organs, all except the lungs, are thoroughly cleaned and boiled in water, with a few stalks of lemon grass, until soft and tender, then they are sliced to bite-size pieces. To add some crunch to the dish – garlic, shallots, some of the fat, skin, and internal organs are deep-fried separately until golden and crisp.
Mixing all the ingredients together in a salad-like fashion is called in Thai “yam laap” (ยำลาบ) or “so laap” (โสะลาบ). The minced meat is mixed with the Naam Phrik Laap, to which a small amount of the collagen rich stock, resulting from boiling the internal organs, is added as needed to achieve the right consistency–not too watery and not too dry. Then the internal organs are added along with chopped aromatic herbs, and the dish is finished by topping it with the crispy goodies.
Bile juice (น้ำดี nam dee) and gastric juice (น้ำเพี้ย naam phiia) are added sometimes as bitter seasonings for beef or buffalo laap.
Lastly, to make a cooked laap, the ready-to-eat and fully seasoned laap mixed already with herbs is roasted in a wok without the addition of oil or liquids to cook the meat, resulting in what is referred to in Lanna as laap khuaa (ลาบคั่ว), or laap sook (ลาบสุก) in Isan.
Laap is being served with a wide range of herbs, vegetables, and green leaves collectively called Phak Gap Laap.
The accompanying vegetables and greens – phak laap (ผักลาบ)
“Phak Gap Laap” (ผักกับลาบ) is the term used to describe the twenty to forty different herbs, vegetables, and young leaves that are served with the laap, many of which can be found near the home or out in the fields and forests. The selection was shaped according to the geographical region and the seasonal changes, using ancient wisdom and cooking techniques, which were passed down through generations — each element was selected due to its medicinal properties, flavor, or aroma.
Phak Gap Laap is compiled from three main groups – aromatic herbs, sour leaves, and bitter herbs. Each has its own role in the dish. While the aromatics add pleasant fragrance to counter the gamey taste of raw meat and blood, the sours are complementing the taste of laap and helping in the digestion of the uncooked meat. Lastly, the bitter herbs are believed to cure a wide range of ailments.
It is easy to imagine that the duty of collecting such a wide range of vegetables and greens was the responsibility of either the women or the kids of the village, while the men were chopping the meat and drinking alcohol.
Herbs and vegetables that are served as Phak Gap Laap can include:
Cucumbers, tomatoes, cabbage, cauliflower, bird’s eye chilies, winged beans, yard-long beans, and mustard greens. An assortment of eggplants – apple eggplants, yellow bitter eggplants, or pea eggplants. Aromatic herbs like rose petals, spring onions, coriander, saw coriander, mint, Vietnamese coriander, and fennel. Young leaves of trees like mango and star fruit among a long list of indigenous and exotic herbs, which are listed below alphabetically according to the English botanical name:
- Acanthopanax trifoliatum Merr. (ผักแปม phak bpaaem)
- Asparagus racemosus (ผักชีช้าง phak chee chaang)
- Azadirachta indica (สะเดา sadao)
- Centella asiatica (บัวบก buaa bohk)
- Clausena excavata Burm.f. (เพี้ยฟาน phiia faan)
- Culantro (ผักชีฝรั่ง phak chee farang)
- Emilia sonchifolia (หางปลาช่อน haang bplaa chaawn)
- Eupatorium stoechadosum Hance (สันพร้าหอม san phraa haawm)
- Fennel (ผักชีล้อม phak chee laawm)
- Garden Croton (โกสน go:h sohn)
- Hog plum (มะกอกป่า ma gaawk bpaa)
- Houttuynia cordata (คาวตอง or พลูคาว khaao dtaawn OR phluu khaao)
- Indian trumpet flower (เพกา phaeh gaa)
- Lemon balm (สาระแหน่ saa ra naae)
- Leucaena leucocephala (กระถิน grathin)
- Javanese Long Pepper, Piper retrofractum (ดีปลี dee bplee)
- Ocimum gratissimum (ยี่หร่า yee raa)
- Phyllanthus acidus (มะยม ma yohm)
- Plectranthus amboinicus (Lour.) Spreng (หูเสือ huu seuua)
- Polyscias fruticosa Harms (เล็บครุฑฝอย lep khroot faawy)
- Sesbania grandiflora flowers (แค khaae)
- Senegalia pennata (ชะอม chaohm)
- Solanum aculeatissimum Jacq. (มะเขือขื่น ma kheuua kheuun)
- Solanum torvum (มะเขือพวง ma kheuua phuaang)
- Solanum trilobatum (มะแว้งต้น ma waaeng dtohn)
- Spilanthes oleracea (ผักคราด phak khraat)
- Vietnamese coriander (ผักไผ่ phak phai)
- Winged bean (ถั่วพู thuaa phuu)
Northern Thailand – Laap Muang (ลาบเมือง)
Laap Muang is a generic name for all laap dishes from the northern parts of Thailand, where dry spices are added. It is used to differentiate the northern version of laap from the northeastern, or Isan style of laap.
Saa (ส้า) – is a term used in the North to describe a laap-like dish were the meat is sliced thinly rather than minced.
Laap Dip (ลาบดิบ) – laap which is made from raw meat.
Laap Dee Khohm (ลาบดีขม) – a bitter laap recipe to which bile juice and gastric juice were added.
Laap Khuaa (ลาบคั่ว) – laap, which was seasoned first and then roasted in a wok or pan to cook the meat. There are two versions of laap khuaa – dry and wet.
Laap Khuaa Haaeng (ลาบคั่วแห้ง) – roasted dry laap. The laap mixture was pre-seasoned and then roasted in a wok or pan without any additions of fluids. To this recipe, blood is seldom added because the roasting will cause it to turn black, and the result would be unappealing.
Laap Khuaa Naam (ลาบคั่วน้ำ) – roasted wet laap – laap with a thick sauce made by cooking the pre-seasoned laap with small amounts of stock left from boiling the internal organs and blood.
Laap Niaao (ลาบเหนียว) is a viscous laap, gooey in texture. Also called in some regions Laap Niian (ลาบเนียน) or Laap Naam Dtohn (ลาบน้ำโตน). Laap Niaao is a wet raw laap version to which the thick and collagen-rich stock left from boiling the internal organs and blood is added for texture.
Laap Mee (ลาบหมี่) – is a version of laap using only the internal organs, mixed together with large amounts of fried crispy garlic.
Laap Law (ลาบลอ) – a laap which uses equal amounts of beef and buffalo meat mixed together.
Laap Khamooy (ลาบขโมย) – thieves’ laap – a laap in which the meat is not minced fine, as if the cook was panicked and in a rush to finish it up and didn’t take the time needed. The name was probably invented to describe laap that was made from stolen pieces of beef, where the thieves were in a hurry to finish it up before being captured.
Laap Gao (ลาบเก๊า), Laap Glai Jaaeng (ลาบใกล้แจ้ง) and Saa Deuk (ส้าดึก) – are the names given to the first plates of laap or saa served in a big ceremonies as a breakfast. Laap preparations usually started with the animal butchering very late at night, and by the time the guests arrived, hungry and tired, not all the ingredients were necessarily ready – this laap consists of what was ready when the guests arrived. It can also refer to laap that was made immediately after the animal was killed, in small amounts, when the meat was still warm and fresh.
Luu (หลู้ หรือ ลู่) – is a dish made of minced buffalo meat or beef to which blood is added to fill the plate. The blood is first prepared by working it well with crushed lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves to counter the gamey flavor. Luu is seasoned with Naam Phrik Laap and pickled garlic. It is sprinkled on top with crispy fried kaffir lime leaves, fried garlic, and internal organs
Luu Phiia (หลู้เพี้ย) – same as Luu but the meat is covered with gastric juices instead of blood.
Northern Isan – Nakorn Panom province
Sohk lek (ซกเล็ก) – this is the Isan version of Luu, which is quite spicier than the Lanna version.
Leuuat Bplaaeng (เลือดแปลง) – this dish is popular among Vietnamese descendants in Northern Isan. This is a laap made of cooked pork’s internal organs and served with fresh pork blood.
Northeastern Thailand (Isan) – Isan Laap (ลาบอีสาน)
Laap Isan is a relatively easy dish to prepare which is very popular all across the country and abroad. This is the dish that comes to mind when one hears the word laap. The people of Isan create laap-like dishes from almost any animal protein they can get – beef, buffalo, pork, chicken and duck, birds, fish and shrimp, red ant’s eggs, lizards, and so on. The seasoning is simple and straightforward, using ground chili powder, ground roasted rice, lime juice, and fish sauce or fermented fish sauce. Once seasoned, the laap is mixed with spring onions, coriander leaves, and mint leaves. Laap Isan is fresh, spicy, salty, and a bit sour with notes of nuttiness from the ground roasted rice.
Koy (ก้อย gaawy) – a laap-like dish where the meat is sliced thinly rather than minced.
Gaawy Neuua (ก้อยเนื้อ) and Laap Dip (ลาบดิบ) are both the same Isan-style laap, which is made from raw minced meat.
Laap Leuuat (ลาบเลือด) – Similar to Luu in Lanna and Sohk lek in Northern Isan. It is a laap made of minced buffalo meat or beef to which blood is added to fill the plate.
Nam Dtohk (น้ำตก) – this dish is made from barbecued pork, usually the neck, which is sliced to bite-size pieces. The meat is then brought to a boil with some stock, to create some sauce. The heat is turned off and then sliced shallots, ground roasted rice, chili powder, lime juice, and fish sauce are added, along with shredded coriander leaves, spring onions, and mint leaves.
Dtap Waan (ตับหวาน) – this dish is made in similar fashion to Nam Dtohk, but instead of barbecued pork neck, a semi-cooked liver is used.
Laap (ลาบ), Saa (ส้า), Luu (หลู้), gaawy (ก้อย), nam dtohk (น้ำตก) Recipes on Thaifoodmaster
Fish Koi Recipe (Koi Pla)Vientiane Style Fish and Herbs Salad(gaawy bplaa nin vientiane ; ก้อยปลานิลเวียงจันทน์)In 1833 Prince Mongkut, who later became King Rama IV, found a square stone inscription, known today as “The Ramkhamheang’s Inscription”, believed to be written 541 years earlier, in 1292, by King Ramkhamheang – the third king of The Sukhothai Dynasty (1279-1298). In this inscription King Ramkhamheang tells the story of the Sukhothai regime; He includes ...
Luang Prabang Style Koi Fish Salad Recipe (Koi Pla)A marvelous Luang Prabang style fish salad recipe (Koi Pla), which is very easy to prepare and even though it looks simple, its flavors are complex and clever. Fresh fish fillet is sliced into thin strips which are quick blanched in lemongrass infused boiling water – a cooking method that presenting it’s natural flavors with an ...
(gaawy bplaa nin luang prabang ; สูตรทำก้อยปลานิลหลวงพระบาง)
Snakehead Fish Nam Tok Recipe ; Spicy Issan Style Deep Fried Snakehead Fish Dressed with Fresh HerbsHere is a wonderful spicy Nam Tok recipe; you may as well go for it! A crispy fried fish dressed with plenty of fresh herbs, plenty of chilies than some lime juice and fragrant ground roasted rice as a textural binder. It is an unpretentious dish, that is just about what is around and what ...
(naam dtohk bplaa chaawn)