Beef wrapped in lá lốt leaves is a classic Vietnamese dish that I first encountered in the New York Chinatown restauarant helpfully called Vietnam. It has since changed hands and is now apparently not good at all, but back in the day it was the best Viet food in New York. It looked completely unprepossessing – dingy sign outside and you had to go down some scummy stairs into a dark basement space. But the food was amazing. The owner used to boast that unlike many Vietnamese places in town, he had a chef who had come from Vietnam. I’ve no idea if that’s actually something to boast about, but there were certainly dishes there that you didn’t see in the other phở and bun joints in Chinatown. And one of those was thịt bò nướng lá lốt, which was only served on the days that the leaves had arrived. Knowing it was only sporadically available made it all the more exciting.
Lá lốt leaves are also known as pepper leaves and betel leaves, but most menus and Asian stores I’ve seen simply call them by their Viet name. The leaves are rather lovely: glossy on one side and pale on the other. I saw them in London’s Chinatown last weekend and bought them on impulse. The prospect of recreating one of my favourite of Vietnam’s dishes was too tempting…
As I hadn’t made this dish before, I turned to one of my favourite cookbooks, Mai Pham’s Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table. One of the things I love about this book is its coverage of Vietnamese basics, and I’ve learned a lot from her thorough coverage of Vietnamese techinques, ingredients and condiments. Her version of lá lốt beef looked ideal and though I altered it a bit here and there, it turned out really delicious.
Beef wrapped in lá lốt leaves
- 1/4 lb beef mince
- 15 lá lốt leaves
- 4 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 small onion, diced
- 5 stalks lemongrass, chopped fine
- 2 tbsp roasted peanuts, crushed
- 1 tsp ground turmeric
- 1 tsp sugar
- a pinch of salt
- a glug of fish sauce
- bamboo skewers
- lettuce and nuoc cham to serve
In a small pan, fry the onion for a couple of minutes then add the garlic for another minute. Transfer to a big bowl and add the beef, lemongrass, turmeric, peanuts, sugar, salt and fish sauce.
Now mix together thoroughly, smushing everything together into a paste. This is most fun if you do it with your fingers.
Now the really fun part. Take a leaf and place it shiny side down. Put a tbsp of filling about 1/3 of the way up the leaf and form into a cylinder. Roll the leaf up from the base to the tip, (no need to tuck the sides in, they stay open) and put the roll to the side, tip side down to hold it in place. Repeat till you’ve used up all your filling.
Next, thread your rolls onto some bamboo skewers, making sure you go through close to the tip so the roll stays wrapped.
Traditionally, these parcels are grilled but I don’t do outdoor grilling and it seemed like indoors they’d do better on a non-stick pan. Of course, you need a cooking surface big enough to fit your skewers – I cooked them on the same large grill pan I use for pancakes and french toast. Just heat up a little vegetable oil and cook the skewers for 4-5 minutes on each side, until the meat is cooked, the leaves have shrunk down and blackened a little, and they are giving off their amazing cooked fragrance. Serve with nuoc cham for dipping, and fresh lettuce to wrap them in.
Serves 3-4 as appetisers or snacks. Adapted from Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table.