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Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Nem Khao: Laotian Crispy Rice Salad

You know what I miss about the cities I have traveled to? The. Food.

I've often dreamed about flying back to Sydney (where I lived for nearly a year) for a plate of hand-pulled noodles from Chinese Noodle Restaurant. Perhaps flying home to Maui for some Sam Sato's Dry Mein Noodles would be a lot cheaper. But, believe you me, not a day goes by when I don't crave my San Diego comfort food of choice: a thali plate complete with rice, perfectly bubbled naan smeared with ghee, smoky murgh makhani and mushroom masala from Punjabi Tandoor. Most of these dishes sink into my memory and become the elusive stuff that dreams are made of. But, occasionally, I work up the nerve to trust my palate, memory and photographs and re-create a dish. And sometimes, it actually works.

And, tonight, a wonderful Laotian classic called Nem Khao made its way to the dinner table.

Some time ago, my dear friends and trustworthy foodies, Ali and John, recommended a tiny little Laotian mom-and-pop place in San Diego called Asia Cafe. You might notice that all the yelpers said to order the one thing that is inexplicably not on the menu: Nem Khao. I love secret menus!

Nem Khao is essentially a salad composed of fried rice balls that have been mashed up and tossed with generous amounts of scallions, cilantro, and peanuts. Like any regional specialty, the recipes vary widely. Some might have lemongrass and ginger; some use seasoned patties with spices and egg. This dish generally contains some sort of pork and is almost always served with red chili peppers (as noted in photo above) and doused with fish sauce and lime juice.

I omitted the pork and chillies because I wanted to focus on recreating the foundation of the dish, which is the rice salad. Now, this is all speculation, but I believe Asia cafe keeps it simple. Besides some key ingredients, this dish is all about texture. You use cooked jasmine rice that has been chilled to get rid of excess moisture. You could use broken jasmine rice (cheaper) or regular jasmine rice. Or you could gently pulse some jasmine rice in your food processor to break up the grains just a little bit, but I don't think this step is necessary. You fry up some rice patties until they form a nice, crispy golden brown crust, but still maintain a fluffy interior.

Then you chop it up into rugged chunks and toss it with lots of scallions, cilantro, shallots and peanuts. A winning combination, really. Kind of like the Asian version of Panzanella, but rice replaces bread and cilantro steps in for basil.

A dose of salty fish sauce is the cornerstone of this dish, but it livens up into something so nice and bright when it tag teams with fresh cilantro, lime and scallions. Some peanuts join the green party for some added crunch.


2 cups jasmine rice (cooked and chilled)
1.5 to 2 Tbsp. fish sauce
4 Tbsp. fresh lime juice
1/4 tsp. lime zest
pinch of sugar
* 2 tsp. garlic, crushed
1/4 cup roasted peanuts, roughly chopped
1 small shallot, thinly sliced
1/2 cup cilantro, chopped
3/4 cup scallions, thinly sliced
small pinch of kosher salt (optional)
canola oil for frying


* Cook the rice as directed and let it cool and then chill. You do not want to fry wet hot rice, so this step is important.
* Form the rice into 6 large patties (at least one-inch thick).
* In a large cast iron skillet or dutch oven, pour about 2 cups of oil for the shallow fry and heat on medium-high.
* Fry the patties for about 5-7 minutes on each side. You want to allow it to become golden brown before flipping the patties, but be careful not to burn them.
* Place patties on a paper towel to drain excess oil and cool for a few minutes.
* Roughly chop up the patties and place in large mixing bowl.
* In a small bowl, mix the fish sauce, garlic, sugar, lime juice and zest and add this mixture to the rice.
* Add in the scallions, peanuts, shallot and cilantro and mix everything together.
* If necessary, add a pinch of kosher salt to adjust seasoning to taste.

Veggie note: If you want to make this vegetarian/vegan, you can make some Fishless Fish Sauce. I'd love to know how it turns out!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That looks so yummy! I love Laotian food!