For me, it’s Thai food. No question about it.
During my nearly seven-year stay in Hong Kong, I visited this country often, each time exploring and being completely blown away by the unique flavours of its food. From the street stalls down to the food markets, it was hard for me to walk more than a few meters without pausing to inhale the aromatic herbs and spices that comprise so much of this amazing cuisine.
Thai basil. Lemongrass. Mint. Chili. Ginger. Kaffir lime. I could go on and on. But instead, I’m going to do you all a favour this time around and cut straight to the chase.
I’d like to introduce you to my Thai pork lettuce wraps.
I’ve been working on this recipe for months, each time experimenting a bit with some of my favourite flavours. And it’s finally done.
I can’t stress this enough: This is definitely a meal that needs prep work. So if you have time, put as much of this together during the day (I use my son’s nap time as my prep time) or even the night before. Trust me when I say that if you wait until the last minute to make this dish it’ll drive you mad. Have patience, start early, and when the time comes to eat, you’ll be able to sit down, sweat free, and simply enjoy the beauty of this dish.
When you read the ingredients for this dish below, it may appear overwhelming. But it’s actually a fairly mess-free process, so bare with me. Grab a large bowl for the marinade, a grater, a mincer, and your mortar and pestle. And let’s begin.
The marinade begins with fresh lemongrass. This is a must-have ingredient for most Thai cooking. Extremely aromatic and believed to have several health benefits, this stalky plant provides an unmatched zesty flavour. Some folks prefer to substitute lemon juice. Please don’t. Lemongrass can be found in most stores (in Basel as well!), so take the time to find it.
Grate the lemongrass, together with some shallots and ginger, straight into the bowl. Add to that some minced garlic, sesame oil, brown sugar, soy sauce, rice vinegar, a splash of water, a small spoonful of corn starch, salt, pepper, and some vegetable oil.
And don’t forget the fish sauce. For those who have not used fish sauce before, I feel it my duty to offer a very important tip of survival: Under no circumstances should you put your nose to the bottle and smell this sauce. Ever. Unless of course you actually like the smell of dirty socks.
This sauce carries a fierce scent. On it’s own, it’s probably the most vile thing I have ever smelled. However, when added in small increments to a marinade or sauce, it has a unique ability to transform your dish into something truly indescribable. And I mean that in a good way. There is a reason it is another staple ingredient of Thai food.
Right. So with that out of the way, let’s move onto the trimmings. Shallots. Crispy, beautifully browned shallots.
Slice up about four shallots, toss a lug of oil into a pan, and fry the shallots on medium-high heat until nicely brown. Transfer to a plate lined with a paper towel. Add a pinch of salt over them, and try and refrain from eating all of them before dinner.
Using the same pan, get your roasted peanuts out of the way.
Smash about about a quarter cup of peanuts, toss onto the pan, and roast until golden brown. Transfer to a plate, and as with the shallots, keep them out of munching distance until dinner.
Onto the sauce. This is a must-have with this dish. The toppings add a delightful surprise to this dish. But the sauce brings it over the edge. I’m 100 percent serious when I say that if you are not able to make the sauce, hold off on the dish until you have the time.
Using the same grater, shred one tablespoon of carrot and some garlic into a small bowl. Add the juice of about 6 limes, together with a splash of fish sauce, some water, a pinch of salt, and some sugar. Give it all a good stir, and then slowly add your samba oelek (available in the Coop international aisle for folks in Basel) to taste. Set aside in the fridge, and wait for dinner.
Hopefully, you can get all of this done during your child’s nap time, or even the night before. When you are finally ready to eat, put the sauce on the table, together with a plate of baby romaine leaves (or any other small cup-like lettuce leaves), washed and separated. Arrange the peanuts, fried shallots, herbs and green onions in close vicinity so you don’t have to scramble at the end.
It’s game time. Drain your marinade, and on a very hot skillet, add your chicken or pork. I’ve made this recipe using both, and I have to say I love both equally. Brown until nice and caramelised.
As soon as the chicken or pork is done, transfer to a large plate. Then grab a large knife, and roughly chop the cilantro, Thai basil, and mint. Another useful tip: Do not substitute sweet basil (used in Italian cooking) with Thai basil. Two very different beasts.
Toss the herbs onto the dish, then sprinkle liberally with peanuts, shallots, and chopped green onions. Admire the beauty of the dish, then carry it to the table, sit the family down, and hope that no one starts a fight over who gets the last bite.
In case you are looking for a bit of extra carb, feel free to serve with Thai noodles (nest noodles). You can serve them plain, as the sauce you are using for the lettuce wraps also goes amazingly well with the noodles. Drizzle a bit on them, and enjoy.
Ingredients for marinade
- 500 grams pork or chicken, cut into 1/2 inch pieces.
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 tablespoons fresh lemongrass, grated
- 2 shallots, grated
- 1 inch piece of ginger, grated
- 1 tsp sesame oil
- 1/4 cup packed light brown sugar
- 2 tablespoons fish sauce
- 2 tablespoons soy sauce
- 1 tbsp rice vinegar
- 1 tbsp water
- 1 tsp corn starch
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1/8 tsp pepper
- 1/2 cup lime juice (6 limes)
- 3 tbsp white granulated sugar
- 1 tbsp fish sauce
- 1 tbsp shredded carrot
- 1/4 cup water
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 1-3 tsp sambal oelek (1 tsp for low heat, 3 for high heat)
- 1 garlic, minced
- 4 shallots, thinly sliced
- 1/4 cup (about 75 grams) peanuts, crushed
- 1-2 green onions, chopped (green part only)
- large handful each of Thai basil, mint, and cilantro
- small romaine lettuce leaves, washed and separated
- In a large bowl, add all marinade ingredients except for chicken/pork. Mix well, then add chicken/pork, toss to coat, then cover with saran wrap and keep in fridge at least 2 hours.
- To make the sauce: In a small bowl whisk lime juice, fish sauce, sugar, salt and water. Add carrot and garlic, and then slowly add sambal oelek, one tsp at a time, to taste. Cover and refrigerate until ready to eat.
- To make toppings: add a lug of vegetable oil in a pan over medium-high heat. When pan is hot, add 4 sliced shallots, and fry until golden brown. Remove and place on a plate lined with a paper towel. Sprinkle with salt. Using the same pan, turn heat down to low and roast crushed peanuts, also until slightly browned. Remove from pan and set aside.
- To cook chicken/pork: Pour a small amount of oil into a heated pan, remove the chicken/pork from marinade and cook until well browned. Transfer to a plate, and garnish with chopped Thai basil, mint, cilantro, green onions, peanuts and shallots.
- Serve in lettuce leaves and drizzle with sauce. Use Thai nest noodles as a side dish if desired (together with sauce).