Here’s My New Favorite Way to Eat Tofu This Summer
A burst of flavor and my new summer favorite
Food Editor at Kitchen Stories
Here in Berlin, we are home to more culinary diversity than perhaps any other city in Germany. For all of you Berlin foodies, I’m probably super late to the party, but earlier this summer I finally (!) made it to Thaipark on the outskirts of the Berlin Ring, one of those culinary gems of the city.
Thaipark, also known as Thaiwiese by locals, started from weekly picnic gatherings amongst the Thai community living in Berlin a few years ago. It later developed into an established street market open to all, and now everyone can visit and enjoy Thai and other Asian cuisines (if weather permits).
Amid Pad Kra Pao, Pad Thai and Papaya-Salad, I discovered an exciting vegan dish at one of the many delicious food stalls there: Larb Tao Hoo (ลาบเต้าหู้). I had never heard of it before and it blew me away immediately.
What was modestly advertised as spiced tofu salad with various herbs turned out to be a real flavor explosion - and soon becomes my new favorite summer dish!
Vegan Larb Tofu
Perhaps you have come across the dish before with one of its many different spellings and pronunciations. It is referred to as Larb, Laap, Larp, Lahb or Laab due to differing transcriptions of the characters.
It might even sound familiar to one or two Marvel fans: In the film Spider-Man: Homecoming, an entire scene is dedicated to the dish (If I had been Peter Parker, I would have gone weak at the knees with "I larb you").
Incidentally, I found out that the word "larb" actually has two meanings: "finely chopped" or "luck". I can happily admit at this point that both are more than appropriate for the dish.
Of course, I do not claim to show you how to authentically recreate this dish at home. But sometimes a little inspiration is needed. So I'd like to share with you this fabulous, simple way to make a surprisingly different, refreshing, and protein-packed salad. What's more, this recipe is a great way to turn that block of soy, which is often dismissed as bland, into a flavorful tofu recipe.
And it gets even better: as is common in many Asian countries, the dish can be eaten with just your hands. To do this, serve it in a handy lettuce leaf as I do in my recipe.
What is Larb?
Although you can find this lukewarm salad on the menu of many Thai restaurants, strictly speaking, Larb does not originate from Thailand. Instead, it is considered one of the national dishes of neighboring Laos. Laotian immigrants, who also brought culinary influence with them, introduced the dish to northeastern Thailand, making it equally well-known and popular in Isaan cuisine. Traditionally, the dish is made using minced chicken (Larb Gai). But in fact pretty much any protein or meat can serve as a forefront for this aromatic salad. Any of the following, when chopped finely, fit perfectly:
– Chicken (gai)
– Pork (moo)
– Beef (nüa)
– Duck (pet)
or, as in this case, Tofu.
The whole thing is usually served with steamed sticky rice on the side as well as some fresh vegetables.
Why Larb has such a distinctive flavor
No matter which type of larb you choose: meat, fish, or vegan, the other building blocks always remain the same. Basically, it's all about one thing: the very special interplay of textures and flavors that make this fresh and spicy dish so extraordinary.
To give the salad its excitingly novel texture, the key ingredient for larb is the roasted rice powder, khao khua (which you'll also find in this recipe for Thai beef salad). The rice powder takes the dish to a whole new level with its added crunchy-grainy texture layer. And the wonderful nutty smell (a bit like popcorn) that hits your senses as soon as you roast is a real treat. This step, which you'll also find in my recipe, is something you should not skip.
The plethora of fresh herbs responsible for the aromatic taste. In my version, I used various mild herbs such as coriander, mint and Thai basil. Long coriander, also known as culantro, is also added in the traditional version. But as the herb is a little hard to get hold of, I have omitted it in order to make the recipe even more accessible. Likewise, kaffir lime leaves, common in Southeast Asian cuisine, are often found in larb. These add an extra citrus note, but can also be used optionally if you have no luck finding them in the supermarket. Lemongrass and lime zest can be a good substitute.
The magic of contrasting flavors
What also made it such a flavor explosion for me was certainly the holy flavors of Southeast Asian cuisine (The reason why our former editor Mary-Linh was also so obsessed with this papaya salad). It is important to maintain a balance so that none of the flavors drown out the others too much and take center stage. Larb brings these flavors together in an excitingly delicious combination and is equally…
…spicy: traditionally this dish is very spicy. This is because the spiciness was meant to kill the bacteria in the (raw) meat. Fortunately, this is not necessary with the tofu version. Nevertheless is this dish exciting without adding too much chili. As not everyone is a fan of fiery food, the amount of dried and fresh chili can be adjusted and toned down to suit your preference of heat.
…salty: In the non-vegan version, fish sauce is used. This gives the dish its umami and light saltiness. In the vegan version, you can either replace it with vegan fish sauce or leave it out and use a little more soy sauce and salt instead, if you're not a fish fan like me.
…as well as sweet: The pleasant light sweetness comes from the sugar in the dressing. Instead of using the traditional palm sugar or coconut sugar, I opted for brown cane sugar, which is more readily available but also brings a similar malty caramel touch.
…sour: As in most Asian dishes, larb gets its acidity from the lime. Here, it is mixed into a fruity, fresh lime dressing that is absorbed by the tofu like a sponge. The obligatory lime wedge for serving and squeezing is also a must for me. The acidity of the lime is also used to additionally cook the meat when it is used raw (similar to ceviche).
Well, are you intrigued? Then try my recipe for Vegan tofu larb and let yourself be swept away by the exciting texture and delicious flavors. And maybe it will become your new favorite summer tofu dish. Larb tastes best served lukewarm and of course, just like at the culinary get-together on the Thai meadow, surrounded by good company.
Published on August 7, 2022