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Shayn Prapaisilp comes from a restaurant family – in 1981, his father opened the first Thai restaurant in St. Louis not long after emigrating to the United States – but becoming a chef wasn’t always in his parents’ plan for him.
“As a child, the highlight of my weekend happened in my family’s kitchen, where heaping plates of homemade Thai food fed an army of hungry kids,” he recalls. “But I was kept out of the kitchen to focus on schoolwork, so I never had the chance to learn the ways of my family’s cooking traditions.”
After he went off to college and pursued other interests, he found himself feeling drawn back to the kitchen and looking for ways to reconnect with his heritage foods.
“I missed our traditional Thai dinners,” Prapaisilp says. “My aunts finally gave in and shared easy, quick, and inexpensive recipes with Thai roots. Laap Tofu was born when I replaced the ground pork in the traditional Laap recipe with tofu. Little did I know that never finding the right cut of pork to make traditional Laap in grocery stores would inspire me to develop the most popular vegetarian dish on my restaurant’s menu.”
That restaurant is Chao Baan, opened last year in his hometown of St. Louis. The glowing reviews quickly started rolling in with Prapaisilp earning a lot of love for his take on the family business, offering a menu full of references to the traditional dishes of the regions of Thailand where his mother and father grew up.
Among those dishes is the tofu laap he adapted from his aunts as a young adult – and it’s a spicy, savory classic. When made with plant-based ‘fish’ sauce, the dish is completely vegan, and the at-home tofu laap recipe he shares with us below is quick and simple to make. Serve it on its own or as an accompaniment to your next Thai feast.
A note on the name: Chef Prapaisilp uses the spelling ‘laap,’ but you might have encountered versions of this dish by the labels ‘laab’ or ‘larb.’ Iterations of the food appear in Lao, Thai, and other cuisines of the region, and spellings differ, but all refer to essentially the same delicious creation.
Shayn Prapaisilp’s Tofu Laap
- Drain tofu and press well with a towel to absorb excess liquid. Cut into 1/2- to 3/4-inch cubes.
- In a large nonstick skillet, heat oil over medium-high. Add tofu. Let it cook without stirring until golden, 2 to 3 minutes. Toss and continue cooking, tossing occasionally, until golden on most sides, about 10 minutes. Remove from pan and set aside.
- If pan is dry, add a dash more oil, then add green onions, red onion, and garlic. Cook over medium until fragrant, but not brown, 1 to 2 minutes.
- Return tofu to the pan, along with fish sauce, lime juice, and toasted rice powder. Mix well to heat through.
- Remove from heat; stir in mint, cilantro, and a pinch of Thai chili powder to taste.
- Serve warm, topped with extra herbs and sliced jalapeños, if desired. Pair the tofu laap with hot sticky rice, or fill butter lettuce leaves for wraps, adding more herbs and a squeeze of lime.
To make toasted jasmine rice powder at home, cook 1/4 cup uncooked jasmine rice in a small skillet over medium-low until aromatic and golden brown, tossing frequently, 6 to 10 minutes. Let cool, then grind in a small food processor or spice grinder, or with a mortar and pestle.
Before cooking with tofu, make sure to press it well to remove any excess water for crisp and crunchy tofu rather than a dense tofu. Simply place the tofu on a plate and add another plate on top holding heavier items, like canned foods, to squish the tofu. After 30 minutes, you can expect ¼ cup to ½ cup of excess liquid on the plate.