Making lettuce and herb wraps filled with well-seasoned grilled morsels is a quintessential Viet way to eat. It’s fun and healthy, too.
For my cookbook, Vietnamese Food Any Day, I wanted a simple take on beef wrapped in wild betel leaf (bò nướng lá lốt), a classic favorite. Plentiful in Vietnam but rare outside of Little Saigon markets in America, these heart-shaped, edible leaves of the Piper sarmentosum (aka Piper lolot) magically release a peppery, incense-like aroma during cooking.
It took many rounds of experimentation before I was able to conjure the flavor of betel leaves by seasoning the meat with curry powder (Sun brand is my go-to blend), fish sauce, oyster sauce, and black pepper. Piper sarmensotum is a member of the peppercorn family, which is why I add a generous amount of black pepper to the beef.
Viet foods often are eaten with lots of raw vegetables and herbs, which lend textures, flavors, and phytochemicals. You can tinker with each lettuce wrap and build it to customize flavors to your liking!
BUY GROUND BEEF FOR THESE WRAPS
For the best flavor, use good ground beef, the kind you’d make excellent burgers with. I love preparing this recipe with grass-fed beef, which can be pricey, but you do not need a lot. If you like, try subbing ground lamb or pork for the beef.
Water hydrates the meat mixture to prevent a dry finish, and peanuts lend texture. If you’re allergic to peanuts, consider cashews, which are also popular in Vietnam.
HOW TO MAKE THE NUOC CHAM SAUCE
I’ve been making Vietnam’s ubiquitous nước chấm for decades but still prepare it in stages to dial in the flavor. Much like making a vinaigrette—taste, taste, taste.
Follow this recipe, then create your own formula. With the optional additions, choose chili for heat, garlic for pungency, and/or carrot for texture.
For a make-ahead nước chấm, combine the sugar, water, and fish sauce to create a base, but leave out the lime juice (which dulls and can turn the sauce slightly bitter when left for too long). Refrigerate for up to two weeks. To finish, add the lime juice, vinegar (if using), and any desired add-ins. (Prep a double batch if you use nước chấm a lot.)
For a vegetarian nước chấm, stir together a rounded 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt, 3 tablespoons packed light brown sugar (or 4 to 5 tablespoons maple syrup), and 3 tablespoons lime juice. Taste and add sweetener or up to 1 teaspoon unseasoned Japanese rice vinegar to round out. Add 2/3 cup lukewarm water and 1 1/2 teaspoons soy sauce, and finish with any add-ins before serving.
THE BEST RICE NOODLES TO BUY
Shop for the dried round rice noodles (maifun) in the Asian section of the supermarket. Look for ones that are about the size of angel hair pasta.
If that’s not available, check the gluten-free pasta section for capellini that’s made from all rice, such as Jovial brand. (When other grains are blended in, the flavor isn’t good for Vietnamese dishes.)
When it comes to cooking the noodles, Japanese and a handful of Chinese noodle companies have spot-on cooking directions, but most producers don’t. Plus, the noodles are crafted for multiple uses. Go rogue and judge the timing and doneness yourself, following my method in the instructions. You’ll be a better cook.
TIPS FOR EASY PREP
Here are a few tips to speed up prep:
- Boil the noodles and ready the lettuce, herbs, and sauce in advance. Refrigerate the noodles and vegetables for a good three days. Make the sauce up to eight hours ahead and chill or keep at room temperature.
- Chop the peanuts and green onions in a small food processor to save time, and add them to the meat mixture.
- To refresh the noodles, sprinkle them with water and microwave on high for 60 to 90 seconds.
- For extra color and texture, cut a 2-inch section of carrot into fine matchsticks (or coarsely grate it), then add to the dipping sauce.
HOW TO SERVE LETTUCE WRAPS
Combine the beef patties with veggies and rice noodles for a one-dish meal. If you like, skip the noodles for a low-carb dish.
This recipe yields 24 patties, which is roughly six ounces of meat per person. If it seems like too much food, save leftovers for later, or invite a couple people over and cook up extra noodles and add more veggies.
Carrie Havranek, Our Site associate editor, made these up for a meal and thought they’d make great burgers if sized a little larger. They’d make a good appetizer, too!
OR MAKE BEEF RICE BOWLS!
Instead of lettuce wraps, make curry-scented grilled beef rice bowls! Simply cut the lettuce into ribbons, coarsely chop the herbs, and put them in soup bowls. Add room temperature or slightly warm cooked rice (about 3/4 cup per bowl) and the cooked beef patties, then drizzle with the sauce. Eat with a fork and spoon.
This is a versatile recipe that you can take in many directions.
LOOKING FOR MORE VIETNAMESE RECIPES?
First of all check out my book, Vietnamese Food Any Day! Also, try these other recipes here on Our Site:
- Crispy Sweet Potato Lettuce Wraps
- Char Siu Chicken
- Quick Chicken Pho
- Chicken Curry with Sweet Potato and Lemongrass
- Vietnamese-Style Noodle Bowls with Chicken