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 n ướ c ch ấ m 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 n ướ c ch ấ m, 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 n ướ c ch ấ m a lot.)
For a vegetarian n ướ c ch ấ m, 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, Simply Recipes 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 Simply Recipes:
- Crispy Sweet Potato Lettuce Wraps
- Char Siu Chicken
- Quick Chicken Pho
- Chicken Curry with Sweet Potato and Lemongrass
- Vietnamese-Style Noodle Bowls with Chicken
- For the beef patties:
- Brimming 1/3 cup unsalted roasted peanuts or cashews, finely chopped
- 3 medium green onions, white and green parts, finely chopped
- 1 tablespoon Madras-style curry powder (preferably Sun brand)
- 3/4 teaspoon recently ground black pepper
- 3 tablespoons water
- Brimming 1 tablespoon oyster sauce
- 1 tablespoon fish sauce
- 1 1/2 pounds ground beef (about 85 percent lean)
- For the nuoc cham:
- 2 to 2 1/2 tablespoons sugar, or 3 to 4 tablespoons maple syrup
- 3 to 4 tablespoons fresh lime juice
- 1/2 cup warm water, or as needed
- 2 teaspoons unseasoned Japanese rice vinegar (optional)
- 3 to 4 tablespoons fish sauce
- 1 or 2 Thai or serrano chiles, thinly sliced (keep seeds intact); or 2 to 3 teaspoons chile garlic sauce or sambal oelek, optional
- 1 large garlic clove, minced, optional
- 1/2 small carrot, cut into thin matchsticks or coarsely grated, optional
- For the curried beef lettuce wraps:
- 6 ounces small dried round rice noodles (maifun), or 8 ounces dried rice capellini or thin spaghetti
- Leaves from 1 large head of soft-leaf lettuce (such as butter, Boston, or red or green leaf)
- 6 to 8 bushy sprigs fresh mint or basil
- 10 to 12 sprigs fresh cilantro
- Optional add-ins:
- 1 or 2 Thai or serrano chiles, thinly sliced (keep seeds intact); or 2 to 3 teaspoons chile garlic sauce or sambal oelek
- 1 large garlic clove, minced
- 1/2 small carrot, cut into thin matchsticks or coarsely grated
Form the patties
In a medium bowl, combine the chopped peanuts, green onions, curry powder, black pepper, water, oyster sauce, and fish sauce. Add the beef and mix with your fingers. (If not cooking right away, cover and refrigerate for up to 24 hours.)
Form into 24 patties, each a good 2 inches wide and 1/2 inch thick. Set aside.
Make the nuoc cham
In a small bowl, combine 2 tablespoons of the sugar (or 3 tablespoons of the maple syrup), 3 tablespoons of the lime juice, and the water. Taste the limeade and, if needed, add the remaining 1 1/2 teaspoons sugar (or 1 tablespoon maple syrup) and/or 1 tablespoon lime juice; dilute with water if you go too far. If there’s an unpleasant tart-bitter edge, add the vinegar to fix the flavor.
Add the fish sauce to the bowl; how much you use depends on the brand and your own taste. Aim for a bold, forward finish that’s a little gutsy. (Keep in mind that this sauce typically dresses dishes that include unsalted ingredients such as lettuce and herbs, which will need an extra flavor lift.) If desired, add the chiles, garlic, and/or carrot. (Offer the chiles on the side if diners are sensitive to their heat.) The sauce can sit at room temperature for up to 8 hours until serving.
Boil the noodles
Bring a large pot of unsalted water to a boil, add the noodles, and return to a boil. Cook until tender-chewy (package instructions are often not helpful, so test a strand—this can take anywhere between 2 and 8 minutes), drain, rinse with water, drain again, and let cool for 5 minutes.
Since the noodles are unwieldy, arrange them as 2-inch nests on a plate or in a shallow bowl. Set at the table with the dipping sauce, lettuce, and fresh herbs.
Cook the patties
Lightly oil a cast iron stove-top grill pan (or lightly film a heavy skillet with oil) and set over medium-high heat. In batches, add the beef and cook for 4 to 5 minutes, turning midway, until medium to medium-well done. (These are usually not eaten medium-rare, but you can cook for less time, if you like.) Transfer to a platter and let cool for a few minutes.
Serve the patties
Have diners build lettuce wraps with herbs, noodles, and beef. For easier eating, you can break or cut each patty into a few bite-size pieces. Set the sauce at the table so diners may help themselves, or portion it out in small bowls in advance of serving. Dunk in the sauce and eat.