Delicious lettuce wraps are a typical Southeast Asia specialty. I first tried them years ago in NYC at a restaurant recommended to me by my cousin who is a huge fan of Asian cuisine. I don’t think I could ever replicate that dish if I were to live a thousand lives. Nevertheless, here is my attempt using the basic ingredients of Thai cuisine. I think I have captured the essence of this dish while giving it my own spin. My daughter Erika who moved to China to teach English, traveled through Thailand during Chinese New Year. There she soaked in a tremendous amount of cultural experience, including a cooking class. She also sent me a really cool book on Thai cooking.
In this recipe I am using a couple of ingredients that are typical of Thai cuisine: tamarind paste and fish sauce (nam pla)*. If you can’t find either, you can use lime juice and soy sauce respectively. Although the tastes differ, you will achieve the sourness and saltiness tamarind paste and fish sauce offer. Apart from Thai cuisine, tamarind paste is used in Indian and Jamaican cuisine and to make Worcestershire sauce.
The origins of lettuce wraps are thought to be Chinese, however today they are found throughout Southeast Asia. They are very popular in Thailand where they are called Larb Kai. There is a small restaurant in my city where they make a mean lettuce wrap. There are multiple ways to prepare lettuce wraps. I’ve adapted the recipe to suit my palate and that of my family. I like to sprinkle mine with chopped cilantro and shredded carrots for taste and color. Food should be pretty, remember?
Erika has raved about the food, the people, and the stunning beauty of Thailand. She has told me that the street food of Thailand is amazing with each vendor offering delicious grilled meats, fruits, soups and other tasty eats. Best of all, it is unbelievably inexpensive.
Lettuce wraps are a great summer meal. They are light, crunchy, and delicious. This is the kind of dish you crave when the mercury rises and heavy foods are out of the question. For those who are looking to curb the dreaded carbs, they are perfect. As far as what lettuce to use? I prefer either bib lettuce or Romaine. Iceberg tends to be a bit hard to fold and can break easily, leaving the filling in your lap. Not a good thing! We like to eat our food, not wear it.
*nam pla is a key ingredient in Thai cuisine. It is made from anchovies, salt, and water. The ingredients are placed in wooden barrels and fermented. For a vegetarian alternative use soy sauce.
- Lettuce leaves
- 1 lb. ground chicken
- 1 Tbsp. vegetable oil
- 1 small onion diced
- 2 garlic cloves minced
- ¼ tsp. pepper
- 2 tsp. ground ginger
- 1 tsp. brown sugar
- 1 Tbsp. tamarind paste*
- 2 Tbsp. fish sauce**
- 2 Tbsp. rice wine vinegar
- 2 Tbsp. chili garlic sauce
- 2 tsp. sesame oil
- chopped cilantro and carrot for garnish
- * tamarind paste can be substituted with equal parts of lime juice and brown sugar.
- ** fish sauce can be substituted with soy sauce
- In a non stick skillet on medium, heat the oil, add onions, garlic and cook until translucent. Add the ground chicken and stir breaking it apart.
- In a small bowl mix together, pepper, ginger, and brown sugar. Add to the chicken. Mix well
- Mix tamarind paste with fish sauce, chili garlic sauce, and rice vinegar. Add to the chicken mixture.
- Mix well until fully cooked. Add the sesame oil, and stir to combine.
- Serve on lettuce leaves. Garnish with cilantro and shredded carrots.