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Laab Nuea & Laab Isaan: What’s The Difference?

Laab is one of the cornerstones of Thai cuisine. I know we say that about a lot of Thai dishes, but it’s true! A balanced, saucy mixture of protein and herbs, it is something of a fragrant meat salad in Thai food, one that we often credit to the northeastern region of the country, also known as Isaan. But the truth is, laab isn’t just exclusive to Isaan; there’s also laab nuea, or “northern laab”, which has a completely different take than laab Isaan.

Before we begin to discuss the difference between laab Isaan and laab nuea, let’s make a distinction between the cultures and characteristics of these two regions of Thailand. The north is known for its refined sensibilities when it comes to things like language, craftsmanship, and cuisine. Northerners tend to take their time, perfecting a craft, whereas Isaan has a more spunky and easy-going personality. The same elements of culture come across more loose and “chill” when compared to the lifestyle of the north, and with food being a medium of self-expression, we do really see how these two distinct ways of life are translated into each of their signature laab. 

A standard pork laab Isaan

As mentioned earlier, laab centers around a protein. With laab Isaan, chicken, beef, or pork are the common proteins used—mostly cooked but sometimes raw. Northerners utilize pretty much the same common meats, due to their availability, but have a different approach in how they use the animal in the dish. Laab nuea recipes characteristically call for the blood and innards of the animal as well, while with laab Isaan this is less common, though not unheard of. 

What really sets the two types of laabs apart is how they are seasoned. Laab Isaan is typically flavored by your standard Thai chili powder, lime juice, fish sauce, and roasted rice, and doesn’t take as much preparation as its northern counterpart. Laab nuea, on the other hand, is marked by the distinct use of Sichuan peppercorn, called Makhawn in Thai. The ingredient is so endemic to laab nuea, it’s often just called “laab pepper” in Thai. The Sichuan peppercorn is finely and meticulously ground up with a number of other fragrant spices, such as cumin, cinnamon, nutmeg, Indian long pepper, clove, cardamom and star anise. The spices are then used to marinate the protein in the meat’s natural liquids. Hence, why northerners insist on not wasting the blood. 

Sichuan peppercorn

Once the protein are cooked (usually grounded or chopped into bite-sized pieces) and condiments are ready, the vegetables are added in. Green onion, red onion, mint and sawtooth coriander (culantro) are very common in laab Isaan, while laab nuea highlights Vietnamese coriander and garlic instead. Everything is thoroughly mixed in a bowl and then typically served with rice, most often glutinous rice, and an additional side of crisp, fresh veggies to balance out the abundant flavors of the dish. The enjoyment of laab with sticky rice and fresh vegetable is something northerners and northeasterners have in common.  

At the end of the day, laab is composed of three main parts: protein, vegetables and condiments. Nowadays, chefs are much more inventive with laab, using fish, duck, various species of deer or even plant-based proteins instead of traditional meats. There’s really no limitation in terms of choice of protein with laab. You can work with your favorite protein and one that is convenient for you. If you’re cooking outside of Thailand, where common ingredients of laab may be difficult to get a hold of, convenient laab seasoning kits may become a meal saver! Otherwise, invent your own laab with the herbs, vegetables, and spices available to you.