Tilapia has a lot to recommend it: it’s cheap, grows fast, can be sustainably farmed, and is low in mercury. Probably the only thing not to love about tilapia is its flavor. Not that it’s actively offensive, just that even in terms of white-fleshed fish tilapia is pretty bland.
That blandness can be remedied with ingredients with serious flavor: fish sauce, ginger, chiles, lime juice and herbs. All these are found in larb, the Laotian meat salad that also happens to be the perfect antidote to a long and dreary winter.
My recipe, from Cooking from the Heart: The Hmong Kitchen in America by Sami Scripter and Sheng Yang, lists a number of herbs you can choose from: mint, cilantro, Vietnamese coriander, culantro, rice paddy herb, Thai basil, Chinese boxthorn. Tragically our co-op doesn’t carry most of those, so I limited my larb to mint, cilantro, and Thai basil – in spite of the authors’ insistence that authentic larb must contain culantro – but it was still delicious.
The word larb for me is associated with raw meat, particularly raw beef. That’s not necessarily the case – larb can be made with cooked or raw meat – but if the idea of raw beef gives you pause, making the salad with raw fish might be a little easier. Just think of it as a south-Asian ceviche.
Adapted from Cooking from the Heart: The Hmong Kitchen in America
- ¾# Tilapia filets
- Juice of two limes
- 2 T minced ginger
- 1 stalk lemon grass, tough parts removed, minced
- 1 hot chili pepper, minced
- 1/3 cup chopped mint
- 1/3 cup chopped cilantro
- 1/3 cup Thai basil
- ½ bunch green onions, chopped
- 1 T fish sauce
- 1 t salt
- 1/4 c toasted rice flour
Chop the tilapia into fine pieces. Toss with lime juice and leave to sit until fish turns opaque. Squeeze off excess lime juice and place tilapia in a large bowl.
Add the rest of the ingredients to the bowl and toss. Serve with lettuce leaves for scooping.
A note on toasted rice flour: I made this by toasting some rice in a skillet until it was tan and then grinding it in my spice grinder. Unfortunately, I didn’t grind it fine enough, and the rice left unsettling crunchy granules throughout the salad. If you’re going to include it, make sure you grind the rice fully to the consistency of flour. You could also leave it out – the salad wouldn’t be authentic, but I think it would taste fine.