What is Healthy?

Thai-Inspired Turkey in Lettuce Cups (Larb or Laab)

Photo by Lorelle Del Matto

I get lots of questions about foods and diets- many about what is “good” or ‘bad.” Are potatoes bad? Is a low-carb diet good? Is whole milk healthy? Can I drink diet soda?

Most of the time my answer turns into a series of questions.
What foods or eating plan make you feel your best? We’re all unique, with different health issues, activity levels and taste preferences. What does “healthy” means to you?  

Here’s how one of today’s most influential chefs, Yotam Ottolenghi, answered the question: (1)

Healthy, to me, means joyful….Cooking and eating have to be things you enjoy doing….Even if you eat the most healthy foods, I don’t think it’s going to bring you health if you haven’t had a good time eating it.”

Joy is a good base on which to build your definition of healthy. My definition includes learning about food, cooking, eating and sharing it. I recently enjoyed researching this recipe, Larb, which has roots in Laos and Thailand.

I started with a recipe from Fine Cooking magazine and researched others.  Some call it a “meat salad” because it’s based on finely chopped or ground meat with flavors we crave from that part of the world – lemongrass, fish sauce, chili pepper and lime. It becomes salad-like when served on fresh lettuce leaves.

Why is Larb popular? It’s an easy recipe to introduce people to cooking Southeast Asian food at home.  Vary it to your liking. Use ground beef or chicken instead of turkey.  I added veggies to the meat and peanuts to the topping list – not traditional.

Are you vegan? Use finely chopped drained tofu and mushrooms. Both soak up the flavors like edible sponges. Use coconut aminos or soy sauce instead of fish sauce.  Don’t like peanuts? Go with cashews or macadamia nuts. You get the idea. Make it fit your healthy.

Photo by Lorelle Del Matto

This recipe features a unique thickening – ground, toasted rice. I tried it with both brown and white jasmine rice instead of more traditional sticky rice.

In case you don’t know of Ottolenghi, through his books, articles and restaurants, he has inspired many, including me, to explore new foodways and awaken our cooking with ingredients like pomegranate molasses, za’atar, sumac and harissa paste.   

Embrace your healthy. It you’re not feeling the joy, or need help finding it, consult with a trained expert, like a registered dietitian-nutritionist.

Thai-Inspired Turkey in Lettuce Cups (Larb or Laab)

I prefer lean meat in the 90-95% lean range. If it is leaner than that the meat may be dry. It’s not authentic, but I serve this dish with fragrant, brown jasmine rice and like crisp, Nappa cabbage leaves to hold the flavorful filling. An inexpensive blade coffee grinder is a handy tool to use for blending spices and rice. Or, thicken the juices with 1 teaspoon of cornstarch mixed with a tablespoon of water.

Serves 5-6 .

4 tablespoons brown or white rice

¾ cup water

1/2 cup chopped shallot

3 tablespoons fish sauce

2 tablespoons finely chopped lemongrass, from tender inner part of two stalks

1 teaspoon crushed red pepper or hot pepper sauce such as sriracha 

1 tablespoon packed brown sugar

1 ½ pounds ground turkey, chicken or lean beef

1 cup diced red bell pepper

1 cup diced carrot

3 tablespoons lime juice, more to taste

1/2 cup thinly sliced green onion, green part only

1/2 cup chopped fresh mint, cilantro, Thai basil or a combination

Fresh Nappa cabbage or lettuce leaves

To serve:

Chopped roasted peanuts

Thinly sliced fresh Thai or other chilis

Fresh whole herb leaves of cilantro, Thai basil, mint

Lime wedges

Hot cooked rice

  1. To toast rice, place rice in a small skillet and stir over medium-low heat until rice smells nutty and turns a deeper brown color (brown rice) or golden brown (white rice), 8 to 10 minutes. Whirl in a spice mill (or in a clean, blade coffee grinder) until it is the texture of sand. 
  • In large deep skillet combine water, shallot, fish sauce, lemon grass, crushed red pepper and brown sugar.  Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Add turkey and cook for 3 to 4 minutes, stirring
    with a wooden spoon or heat-proof spatula, and breaking meat into small pieces. Stir in bell pepper and carrot and continue to cook for 3 to 4 minutes or until meat is cooked through.  Stir in 2 to 3 tablespoons of the ground rice and cook for a few seconds, until thickened.  Remove from heat. Stir in lime juice, green onion and mint or other herbs.
  • Serve in cabbage or lettuce leaves and top with peanuts and other ingredients, as desired. Accompany with cooked rice.


  1. How Weeknight Cooking Inspired Chef Yotam Ottolenghi by Brierley Horton. Cooking Light, November 2018. page 68.

© Lorelle Del Matto 2019

lorelle About lorelle

Crazy about cooking, eating and sharing good food – my work and leisure revolve around the kitchen. As a culinary dietitian my professional life encompasses nutrition counseling and education, recipe development, product development, food and nutrition writing, marketing communications, corporate test kitchen and consumer affairs management, food styling and work as a product spokesperson.

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