Recently, without any idea of what it was, I ordered tofu larb from a Thai restaurant. It was tofu, and all of the ingredients listed were vegan, so why not. When the dish arrived, I was not immediately impressed with the square little tofu cubes, with no veg in sight. However upon tasting, I knew my first impression had been completely wrong-this was amazing. Spicy and salty with a crunchy texture. I tasted lime, perhaps mint- it was such an unexpected explosion of flavors, I wasn’t entirely sure what I was tasting. I did a little research into larb (pronounced more like “Lahp”)- it is a dish traditional to Laos, that has been adopted into Thai cuisine, and it is a minced meat salad. Normally, the words “meat” and “salad” wouldn’t seem like a good combination, but after tasting the tofu larb, and looking at recipes online, I knew how to make the perfect vegan larb using an ingredient I almost never use- textured vegetable protein, or TVP. TVP has a chewy and meaty texture, although there is not much flavor- perfect to absorb all the flavor we want the dish to take on.
There are a few ingredients in this recipe that you can either make yourself, or purchase depending on their availability and the amount of work you want to do. Roasted rice powder can be bought, but I highly recommend making it yourself. It is very cheap, easy and quick- you just toast a little rice in a skillet, until it is golden and gives off a delicious popcorn smell, then grind down slightly (you can also use a food processor). I have never seen vegan fish sauce in a store, although others have reported seeing it. I have no problem making up a batch of my own “fish sauce”-it really bumps up the flavor in Thai dishes. You can always substitute with soy sauce if you need to, although it won’t be quite as good. Lastly is the Thai chili powder– this is an ingredient that, while I will still probably make it myself, I can see the benefits of not. It’s not very expensive to buy, and the cooking experience can be a little unpleasant- the acrid, burning and stinging sensation in your throat and eyes is a little bit like dosing yourself with a mild pepper spray. I do think it pays off though, with the mild smoky flavor, and as long as you try not to inhale deeply while stirring the experience can be fairly painless.
Once you have all of your ingredients, assembling this dish is easy. TVP is the only element you need to cook. Use a large skillet and bring some vegetable broth to a boil- you can use water here, but the broth will be a little nicer. Once it is bubbling, add some soy sauce and the TVP- TVP cooks at around a 1:1 ratio with water. Mix the TVP into the broth, turn off the heat and cover. Check again in about 10 minutes- you should be left with soft, chewy cooked TVP- if there is extra liquid remaining turn on the heat again and evaporate the excess broth.
Once the TVP is cooked, all that remains is to mix the herbs and other ingredients in with the TVP. The herbs I used were cilantro, mint and kaffir lime leaves- if you are unable to find the lime leaves, you can add a little extra lime juice so you don’t loose that flavor. Make sure to add a little chili powder and taste before adding more- it’s fairly strong and you don’t want it to over power the lime and mint. The larb can be served chilled or at room temperature, and you can eat it with sticky rice or serve with vegetables, or just eat it alone.
Vegan TVP Larb
- 3 TBSP. vegan fish sauce (this can also be purchased)
- Around 1 cup of white rice, or 2 TBPS roasted rice powder (if using roasted rice powder, skip step 1.
- A handful of dried red Thai chili peppers, or ¼-1 tsp. of Thai chili powder (if using chili powder, skip step 2)
- 2 cups of vegetable broth
- 2 cups of dehydrated TVP
- 2 TBSP soy sauce
- Fresh mint, about ¼ cup when finely chopped
- Kaffir lime leaves, about ¼ cup when finely chopped
- Cilantro, about ¼ cup when finely chopped
- 2 scallions
- 1 stalk of celery
- 2 shallots
- Juice from 1 lime
- Skip this step if using roasted rice powder. If not, place around 1 cup of rice in a skillet on medium-high heat (no oil), and use a wooden spoon or spatula to constantly stir, not letting any of the rice sit undisturbed for too long. After 3-4 minutes, the rice should change in color to a light caramel shade and will smell strongly like popcorn. Remove from the heat and use a mortar and pestle or food processor to grind the grains into a rough, gritty flour, making sure not to over process. Put in a jar- this will last for a few rounds of larb.
- Skip this step if using chili powder. If not, place a handful of dry chili peppers in the same dry skillet used to cook the rice. Turn the heat on high, and try not to inhale too deeply- the cooking peppers will create an acrid, burning effect in your lungs. Stirring frequently, allow the peppers to cook until they have all darkened, and some of them are black. Remove from the heat and pulse in the food processor for about 30 seconds.
- In a large skillet with high sides, heat the vegetable broth to a boil before adding the soy sauce and TVP, mixing well before turning off the heat and covering. Let it sit for around 10 minutes while you prep the rest of the herbs.
- Roughly mince the kaffir leaves, mint and cilantro. Cut the shallots in half, and then thinly down the length to create half-moons. Slice down the length of the celery to create strips, then dice down the strips to make small squares.
- Remove the lid from the TVP and check to see if there is moisture remaining. If there is, turn on the heat and allow it to evaporate. If not, add the celery, shallots, herbs, lime juice, vegan fish sauce, and 2 TBPS roasted rice powder, along with ¼-1 tsp. chili powder (depending on your spice preferences). Taste and adjust the flavors as necessary. Serve slightly warm, room temperature or chilled with vegetables or rice.