These rice balls are inspired by my friends Lawrence and Noi Allen, who used to own one of the only Thai markets in Houston, Asia Market. I started going there to buy green papayas. But I never left with just papayas—each visit would start with me wandering the aisles, checking out all the different ingredients, until Lawrence would come over and strike up a conversation. He probably didn’t realize when he asked me if I needed help that I was going to bombard him with all kinds of questions about ingredients and Thai cooking, but he was always generous with his time and knowledge.
In addition to the store, Lawrence’s wife, Noi (who immigrated to the US from Bangkok) offered a small menu of Thai dishes, which she’d prepare out of a tiny kitchen in the back. These rice balls were one of my very favorite things. Studded with meat and aromatics, and deep fried until crispy on the outside, they reminded me of the deep-fried rice balls that you see in other cultures, like Italian arancini or the boudin balls that are so popular in Cajun cooking. The cucumber salad served alongside it works like a refreshing, mild pickle.
Lawrence insists that the key to the flavor of these balls is sai ua, a tangy Thai fermented sausage that is seasoned with lemongrass. But if you can’t find it, they’re pretty delicious with ground pork too.
For the rice balls:
2 cups short grain rice
2 tablespoons vegetable oil, plus more for deep-frying
2 tablespoons minced lemongrass (see note)
2 tablespoons minced ginger
3 tablespoons thinly sliced garlic (about 12 cloves)
1 teaspoon minced Thai bird chile (about 1 chile)
1 pound ground pork (or sai ua, Thai fermented sausage)
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup red curry paste (I like Maesri brand, which comes in small cans)
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon fresh lime juice
For the cucumber salad:
1 teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons boiling water
1 teaspoon sambal oelek
1 teaspoon lime juice
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 English cucumber, thinly sliced on a mandoline
1/2 medium red onion, thinly sliced
1/4 cup dry-roasted salted peanut halves
In a rice cooker, combine the rice and 2 cups water and cook according to the machine instructions.
In a medium skillet over medium heat, add the oil. When it shimmers, add the lemongrass and toast for 30 seconds, until it begins to smell fragrant. Add the ginger and toast another 30 seconds, until the ginger becomes fragrant. Add the garlic, and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Stir in the chile.
Add the pork and cook, breaking up with the back of the spoon until crumbled and cooked all the way through. Season generously with salt and pepper, to taste (if using sai ua, you may not to need add much).
Put the rice in a large mixing bowl. Add the curry paste and the soy sauce and mix well. Add the pork mixture, 1 tablespoon salt, and the lime juice, and mix until thoroughly combined. Using your hands, form golf ball size rounds of the rice mixture (you should be able to get about 12 balls). Place the balls on a large plate and transfer to the refrigerator to chill for at least 1 hour (or up to overnight).
Meanwhile, make the cucumber salad: In a medium mixing bowl, combine the sugar, hot water, sambal, lime, and fish sauce, and whisk until the sugar is dissolved. Add the cucumber and red onion to the dressing and let sit for at least 10 minutes to let the flavors infuse.
Fill a heavy bottomed medium Dutch oven or large saucepan with a few inches of oil and heat over medium-high heat until it reaches 350°F on a deep fry thermometer. (You can also do this in a deep fryer.) Working in batches, add the balls a few at a time and fry until golden brown and crisp on the outside, about 4 minutes. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate.
To serve, flatten the rice balls slightly (they will break in places) and place them in small bowls. Spoon some of the cucumber salad and its dressing over the top of each ball and serve.
Note: Lemongrass comes in stalks that are shaped a bit like scallions. To prepare lemongrass, slice the root end off, and remove the first few dry outer layers until reach the tender center of the stalk. Mince the paler-colored parts (usually the bottom half or so) that is tender and fragrant, stopping when it becomes woody and brittle.
Recipe excerpted from Cook Like a Local by Chris Shepherd. Copyright 2019 Clarkson Potter.
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