Every now and then it hits me. A raging need for these intensely-flavoured bundles - lemongrass and fish sauce-funky, lime-spiked, chile- and sugar-rich. My Vietnamese friend Mimi introduced me to wrapping things in leaves, with fresh herbs in the middle. Hedges of basil. Shrubberies of cilantro.
Hot Sour Salty Sweet, a wonderful book, served as the initial guide to these wraps - it has several different recipes for what they call flavour bundles. I bastardised three, based on my pantry (big word for a small cupboard) at the time, and threw in some memories of banh mi.
Sometimes I cook the meat from scratch, using ground pork or the meat cut from pork chops. Otherwise, and more often, I use leftovers: pork, or chicken. Beef is fine, too. The meat is really a conveyance for the heady seasonings. It is a great way to use up and stretch a bit of cold, cooked meat.
So many variations are possible. The only thing I always do is chop everything very, very finely, so that what you are left with at last is almost a paste.
Although this is very simple to make it is time consuming to prepare. Takes me by surprise every time. Put aside an hour for it. There is a lot of washing, drying and chopping. If you are a easily distracted as I am, an hour-and-a-half. Yes: it is worth it.
This serves two.
Quick pickles for topping:
Do these first.
Two carrots, scraped
4 radishes, topped and tailed
Or: green mangos, green papaya, beetroot, etc. etc.
Cut the vegetables into matchsticks. Submerge them - separately - in a bowl each of 1/4 cup rice wine (or white wine) vinegar to 1 cup water, with 1 tablespoon of salt and and 2 tablespoons of sugar. Keep the bowls in the fridge (I like a cold pickle). Drain when ready to use. Instant pickle
2 Tbsp coconut oil or other non-scented oil
1/2 cup finely chopped shallots
3 cloves (1 Tbsp) finely chopped garlic
3 Tbsp minced fresh ginger (two thumb-sized pieces)
1/2 lb ground pork (or leftover pork, chicken or beef) chopped very finely
1 Tablespoon tamarind paste (or 3 Tbsp tamarind water, made from soaking the compressed pulp and straining it out)
1 Tbsp lime juice
2 Tbps palm sugar (the spice shop on 1st Avenue sells it - or use brown sugar)
3 Tbsp fish sauce
2 Tbsp finely chopped roasted peanuts
1 cup water, plus 1/2 a cup
3 Tbsp fish sauce
1 lime's juice (about 3 1/2 tablespoons)
1 Tbsp palm sugar or brown sugar
1 Tbsp ginger, chopped
3 thin slices lime, peel included, chopped very small
1 chopped, hot chile or 1 tsp dried flakes
1 Tbsp lemon grass, trimmed and minced very fine
Mix all sauce ingredients together and pour into a small bowl.
Wrapping and topping:
Large, loose lettuce leaves, like Boston/butter lettuce, or Chinese cabbage, washed and dried
2 cups lightly packed basil, cilantro, and mint leaves
1/2 cup chopped scallions/green onion
Long pieces of cucumber, if you like
In the oil fry garlic, shallots and ginger but do not brown. Add finely chopped fresh meat or leftover chicken, etc. Add tamarind, sugar, fish sauce and peanuts and a cup of water, or enough to cover the ingredients. Bring to a brisk simmer. Cook till all liquid has evaporated and the mixture begins to fry and is turning brown. You're making a dark paste. Stir very well and often, scraping up any bits that are stuck. This part takes about 15 minutes. Add more water to deglaze the crusting pan and return the brown scratchings to the meat. Take off heat and cool. Keep in a pretty bowl for serving. You can make this days in advance and chill...
When you are ready to eat:
On the table put a plate stacked high with washed and dried lettuce leaves. More than you think you need. At least 8 each. A plate piled with fresh herbs, your bowl of meat, the pickles, and the dipping sauce.
To make a flavour package, put a lettuce leaf in your palm. Spoon in some meat. Top with some basil, cilantro and mint leaves. Yes, all of them. Add some scallions, or carrot, or radish. Spoon some of the sauce, in which the ginger, chile etc. are floating, on top of this. Fold sides of the lettuce leaf in towards each other.
Pop in mouth. Chew.
Be happy. Feel your troubles float down the Mekong.