There was a time in this country when lettuce sandwiches — wraps with lettuce in place of bread, or bread with lettuce as a filling — were a thing. First mentioned in print in 1894, they were common in the United States and England during the first half of the 20th century, until they became associated with poverty and hardship.
But in other parts of the world, the lettuce wrap represents the height of civility, a demonstration of love and sharing among family and friends, and it’s Asian restaurants that are leading the way back to this sociable way of eating, as well as one that fits many diners’ desire to cut carbs. Depending on what you put into them, lettuce wraps can be keto- and paleo-diet friendly, with no sacrificing of flavors and diversity of ingredient options.
Eating this way means being willing to get your hands a little dirty scooping up ingredients to put into your customized wrap, but on hot days it offers a light way to dine on a series of bite-size morsels that can be eaten in one gulp.
Few Thai and Laotian restaurants in Honolulu are able to offer a time-consuming feast of pun, or wraps. It involves a lot of preparation, from cooking varied meats and seafood, to chopping a dozen different vegetables and making a variety of sauces.
It’s a particularly home style of eating, and often it’s the way that Asian Flavors owner Ashley (Ash) Thairathom would end a day at her small cafe within the Hale Ohana Marketplace on Ward Avenue. She’d put together a feast of pun for friends to enjoy. It didn’t take long for the curious to take notice and inquire about the colorful spread of meat, fish, shrimp and veggies, so she’s just started to offer it as part of her menu, with advance notice.
“It’s time-consuming to cut all the vegetables, and hard to prepare ahead of time because we want everything to be fresh, otherwise the ingredients might turn color,” she said.
“Even though the prep takes a little longer than cooking a few dishes, the best part is the eating. Food brings everyone together. This is the main thing we do with family, we just get together and wrap.”
This entails grabbing a lettuce leaf and adding a piece of beef, ground pork or seafood, and piling on veggies such as slivered carrots, bean sprouts, green beans, chopped shallots, garlic and more.
A small amount of sauce is added before the lettuce leaf is folded over the ingredients. Thairathom makes her own sauces, from shoyu vinegar for pork, to sweet chili butter and pineapple sauce for fried fish.
Then all that’s left to do is stuff the whole bundle into your mouth.
“We try to do it in one bite, or at most two if you want to taste everything.”
Thairathom said that, generally, women enjoy talking story, and this leisurely paced dining style, more than the men in her family. Her brother Jeremy Thairathom agreed.
“I’m lazy so I just throw everything in a bowl, the men do that.”
He then proceeds to dig into his bowl in silence while others around him chatter away.
“I’m a bartender, so I talk to people all the time,” he explained.
VIETNAMESE BAP CAI
Most Vietnamese restaurants offer lettuce as one ingredient to wrap into rice paper rolls, but Pho Viet Thien Hong in the Manoa Market Place offers seven kinds of lettuce wraps.
“Bap cai” is the generic Vietnamese name for lettuce or cabbage salads. The name is followed by the ingredient used in the wrap, such as bap cai goi ga (chicken salad with lettuce) or bap cai thit heo (pork salad with lettuce).
Each is presented as a plate for one, or two if sharing other dishes. Each lettuce wrap plate comes with mint or basil, slivered carrots and cucumbers to wrap with your choice of protein, from grilled shrimp to lemongrass tofu to grilled or ground pork. It all adds up to a mini feast for the eyes and palate for $11.95 to $14.95 per plate.
Queennie Wong, co-owner of the family-run restaurant, said the ingredients are not the same in Hawaii as in her native Ho Chi Minh City, but in some ways it works out well. She said the Vietnamese frilly long-leaf lettuce xa lach is harder to wrap around foods than the more bowl-shaped butter lettuce popular here.
She said the wrap dishes have been especially popular this summer as people try to go carb-less or lighten their eating habits in the hot weather. The rice- and noodle-free wraps prove filling without weighing diners down.
Diners also love the idea of the customized feast. “A lot of people are really picky. They don’t want peanuts, they don’t want onions, they don’t want certain herbs. If we make a rice paper wrap in the kitchen, they might not like something inside. This way they can put this, and not that.”
The proteins tend to be heavily sauced to carry the flavor through to the added vegetables and lettuce, and each plate comes with a nuoc cham dipping sauce comprising fish sauce, vinegar and a touch of sugar.
Although she said the restaurant stays true to the home style she grew up with, the difference is that people in Vietnam will often spice up the nuoc cham by adding chili sauce, and families might gather up to four kinds of mint, each with its own nuanced flavor, to include in their wraps. These might include familiar spearmint and peppermint; heart-shaped fish mint with a briny pungency; Vietnamese balm or lemon mint, bearing the flavors of citrus and lemongrass; and Vietnamese perilla, also known as purple mint.
For many diners, Korean food is still a meat-centric tradition, whether dining plate-lunch style or heading to a yakiniku restaurant and cooking meat yourself over a tabletop grill.
But vegetables form a large part of the Korean ssam, or “wrapped,” tradition as an accompaniment to yakiniku. It starts with lettuce, onto which go bite-size pieces of meat and small amounts of banchan, or side dishes, ranging from kim chee to seaweed to mashed potatoes.
The ssam tradition started with palace maids in the court of Korea’s 13th-century Goryeo dynasty. They may have adopted this style as a way of stretching small amounts of food.
During the Joseon era that followed about a century later, bossam, or pork wraps, became a tradition linked to the gimjing, or communal, process of preparing kim chee for the winter.
To ensure enough people would show up to help, community leaders would deliver a pig for a feast of pork and fresh kim chee.
At New Shilawon Korean Restaurant at 747 Amana St., it’s a style of dining Jandy Lee, manager of her family’s restaurant, grew up with at home, though she admits that as a little girl she had more interest in the meat than vegetables.
So she understands the 85% of her customers who visit the restaurant for meat only. “They don’t even eat rice,” she said.
It’s the reason the restaurant’s all-you-can-eat yakiniku sets — $29.95 (six kinds of meat) and $34.95 (nine meats) — don’t come with lettuce and assorted vegetables (they’re available a la carte for $7). She learned over time that carnivores don’t want any of the extras that will fill their bellies before they get their fill of red meat.
The wrap ingredients are, however, included in shareable $49.95 to $69.95 Shilawon sets, comprising three to four kinds of meat plus steamed egg and spicy stew.
There are many styles of eating the wraps, and Lee has seen them all.
“There’s a trend now among young local men. They’ll make a pile of ingredients, put a piece of lettuce in their mouths, and shove the rest of the ingredients in, so it self-wraps. They see it as an easy way to make a wrap.”
Dining ssam-style is still new to the dozens of tourists who find their way to the restaurant via social media recommendations.
She said they’re generally accustomed to having meat cooked in the kitchen, so when faced with sets of raw meat they become confused. When told they can grill the meat and put everything together, they proceed to throw everything on the grill, including the potato salad.
It’s a learning curve but she’s gratified. “More and more mainlanders are coming in to try it.”
LAOTIAN GROUND PORK LETTUCE WRAPS
By Ashley Thairathom
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 pound ground pork
- 1 tablespoon EACH oyster sauce and fish sauce
- 1 teaspoon EACH chicken bouillon and garlic salt
- 1-1/2 tablespoons sugar
- 1/4 green onion, chopped
- Lettuce leaves
- >> Papaya Salad:
- 1 to 4 Thai chilies, depending on preferred heat level
- 6 cherry tomatoes, sliced
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1-1/2 tablespoons sugar
- 1 tablespoon mushroom seasoning (see note)
- 1 tablespoon tamarind paste
- 1 lime wedge
- 1 tablespoon EACH fish sauce and bagoong
- 1/2 teaspoon shrimp or crab paste (optional)
- Shredded carrots or long beans (optional)
- 2 cups green papaya, shredded
- >> Lettuce Wrap Sauce:
- 1/3 cup sugar
- 1/8 cup mushroom seasoning
- Juice of 1/4 lime
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1 tablespoon peanuts, crushed
- 1 teaspoon carrots, shredded
- 1 teaspoon chili-garlic sauce (optional)
- 1/2 cup water
- 1/4 cup fish sauce
Heat vegetable oil in wok or skillet. Saute garlic until golden. Add pork, saute a few minutes, then add remaining ingredients through sugar. Garnish with green onion.
>> To make papaya salad: Using mortar and pestle, add ingredients except papaya to mortar one at a time, pounding each with pestle between additions, while tasting and adjusting ingredients to you liking (for example, more lime juice or tamarind for sour notes, more fish sauce for saltiness, more sugar for sweetness). When satisfied with flavor, add green papaya and pound all ingredients together.
>> To make sauce: Mix all ingredients except fish sauce in saucepan. Bring to a boil, then let cool. Stir in fish sauce.
>> To assemble wraps: Place a scoop of pork and small amount of papaya salad in a lettuce leaf; pinch closed. Serve sauce for dipping. Serves 4.
>>NOTE: Mushroom seasoning, a mixture of dried mushrooms and spices, is sold in the spice aisle of grocery stores.
Approximate nutritional information, per serving (based on 2 tablespoons sauce used per serving): 420 calories, 23 g fat, 7 g saturated fat, 80 mg cholesterol, greater than 2,500 mg sodium, 30 g carbohydrate, 3 g fiber, 23 g sugar, 25 g protein. Nutritional analysis by Joannie Dobbs, Ph.D., C.N.S.
Nadine Kam’s restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Advertiser. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.