Nem Khao (Laotian Fried Rice Ball Salad)
In December 2009, I spent 2 weeks in Thailand. My favorite thing about the trip was the food. One of the most memorable dishes was a fried rice ball salad, which I later learned is called Nem Khao.
My friends and I were wandering the street markets in Chiang Mai and stopped at a stall where a woman was frying mystery balls and tossing them with peanuts, ginger, shallots, scallions and what looked like pork skins. After a lot of staring, the woman handed us some mystery balls to try–turned out they were fried balls of seasoned rice! We stood staring a little more before the woman asked if we’d like to buy some…duh! We all shared a serving and I was sold: salty, sweet, sour and crunchy…all in one bite! I found the rice ball salad one more time in Bangkok, but it wasn’t nearly as good…the rice balls were a little stale.
When I got home, my Thai friend identified the dish as Nem Khao, which is a Laotian dish that can also be found in Northern Thailand. As you can imagine, I couldn’t find any restaurants in Chicago that served Nem Khao…and there are only a few restaurants in the Bay Area that serve it. A few weeks ago, my friends took me to Champa Garden in Oakland for the Nem Khao and it was as amazing as I remembered.
As we were eating, I knew I had two choices 1) drive to Oakland every time I have a craving or 2) learn to make it myself. I figured I would try to make it myself and I’m glad I did. This is one of the best dishes I’ve made so far.
Fried Rice Balls
- 1 tsp red curry paste
- 1 Tbsp galangal
- 1 tsp sambal oelek chili paste or 1 Thai red chile
- 3 Tbsp lemongrass
- 3 Tbsp shallots
- 2 Tbsp garlic, finely chopped
- 2 Tbsp fish sauce
- 1/3 cup grated coconut (I didn’t have any but will pick some up for next time)
- 2 cups cooked jasmine rice
- 1 egg + 1 egg yolk
- 1/4 cup vegetable oil
Put first seven ingredients (through fish sauce) in food processor and blend until you have a fine paste. (If you don’t have a food processor you can finely mince everything or use a mortar & pestle.) In a large bowl, mix spice paste with coconut, rice and eggs. Form balls and fry in hot vegetable oil, flipping only once. Drain and cool on paper towels.
To speed things up, I prepped the spices the night before and added the fish sauce right before I was ready to start again. When I got home from work, the rice had already been made (thanks, Joel!) and after everything was mixed together, we were ready to start frying.
- 1/2 lb. Thai sausage (or a few pieces of nem chua found at Vietnamese delis. ground chicken with some fish sauce works in a pinch)
- 4 Tbsp chopped cilantro
- 1/4 cup lime juice
- 3 handfuls of unsalted dry roasted peanuts
- 2 Tbsp ginger, julienned
- 2-3 Tbsp fried shallots (available at the Asian market or make it yourself)
- 1-2 Tbsp fish sauce
- 1 Thai red chile
Fry the Thai sausage and drain on a paper towel or chop up your nem chua. In a large bowl, break up the rice balls and add the meat, cilantro, ginger, shallots, chiles, lime juice and fish sauce. Taste the concoction and add more lime juice or fish sauce as needed. Stir in the peanuts.
Serve with butter or Bibb lettuce and cucumber slices.
And then clean up your kitchen…it can get a little messy.
I made nem khao with brown rice and Vietnamese nem. Though I prefer the Thai sausage over the Vietnamese nem, the brown rice worked nicely!