Cantonese Lettuce Wrap
By The Feiloh - Monday, Apr 29, 2013
It is strange how even the mention of this familiar food we ate in our childhood can evoke images from long ago, when times were mellow and less hectic.
Back in the day, in the 70s, meals were simple: perhaps rice accompanied by only a soup and two vegetable dishes. Meat was a luxury and chicken was only available on festive occasions. Of course, you may have fried rice at the end of the week – for the sole purpose of using up leftover cooked rice and other bits of ingredients.
One way to eat fried rice was to put a tablespoonful onto a lettuce leaf, roll that up and pop that into your mouth for a mix of tastes and textures: the crunch of the lettuce and the softness of the rice with perhaps the bounce of diced fish cake and savoury morsels of Chinese sausage.
But come payday for the head of the household (that is, the father) and the home economist (that is, the mother) may decide to splurge a bit and include more protein in the meals for the children.
The humble fried rice is now replaced with minced meat, fried egg, or shrimp but still wrapped with lettuce to lend a new spin to finger food.
It seems that eating food wrapped in lettuce is a Cantonese custom amongst other Chinese cuisine; witness the same practice for eating “samsui” poached chicken with minced ginger in a lettuce parcel. In Korea, they wrap bbq meats in lettuce with a slice of raw garlic. The only other cuisine that does this (that I know of) is in Mediterranean and Baltic countries where they wrap rice in grape leaves.
Coming back to the present dish in hand, why would the Cantonese wrap food in lettuce? Well, the term for lettuce is “sangchoy” and being a dialect with more tones than Mandarin, lettuce in Cantonese sounds like “rising fortune” and the word for wrap or packet is the same as that for a moneybag.
It is thus not strange for people to want to enjoy wealth figuratively, if not literally.
For Cantonese lettuce wraps, the basic filling is that of minced meat with diced or julienned (finely sliced) crispy vegetables to balance the richness of the meat and for additional crunch for mouth feel. The important thing to look out for is that the ingredients should not drip juices or gravy when bitten into for a more dignified culinary experience.
As such, if using minced meat, do drain the cooked minced meat well before wrapping. For my recipe below, scrambled egg is used to avoid this problem.
This style of eating may be a new experience for your family and you may even get kids who are finicky eaters to eat their veggies by having them wrap their own parcels. Being high in protein and fibre, the lettuce wrap may also appeal to folks on a low-carb diet as an acceptable choice in their menu.
Do feel free to experiment with different fillings and flavours; you are only limited by your imagination and creativity.
1) one head of lettuce
2) one red bell pepper sliced into thin strips (julienned)
3) 200g bean sprouts (cleaned with seed covering and tips of roots removed)
4) 100g frozen corn (thawed)
5) 1 Chinese sausage (diced)
6) 1 fried fish cake (diced or julienned)
7) 100g of shrimps (de-shelled)
8) 4 eggs (beaten)
9) 2 tsp fish sauce
1) Wash the lettuce and separate the leaves by removing the core of the head. There is that trick of slamming the lettuce head, core down, onto the table top to break it from the leaves. Drain the leaves well or spin dry using a salad spinner.
2) Shell and blanch the shrimp briefly in boiling water (30 seconds or until they are just cooked), drain and slice lengthwise into two halves.
3) Heat 3-4 tablespoons of cooking oil in a wok and briefly fry the diced sausage to bring out the flavour.
4) Add the fish sauce, corn, bean sprouts and fish cake; cooking briefly for a minute or so, not so long as to lose their crunchiness.
5) Add the sliced bell pepper last for the last 30 seconds of cooking.
6) Remove from the wok and set aside.
7) Wash and dry the work, heat and add 3-4 tablespoons of oil, and pour in the beaten eggs to make scrambled egg. Remove and set aside when done.
8) To assemble, place a lettuce leaf on a plate and add the other ingredients with the scrambled egg forming the bulk. When adding the other ingredients, try to minimize the amount of liquid added.
9) To eat, you may leave each parcel unrolled and allow each diner to eat as they wish or you can roll the parcels, placing the folded edges down on the plate.