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 hybridized 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 four as a main course.
Quick pickles for topping:
Do these first.
1/3 cup rice wine vinegar or white wine vinegar
2/3 cup hot water
2 tsps salt
2 Tbsp sugar
Optional: 1/4 teaspoon hot chile flakes
Two carrots, scraped, and cut into slender strips
4 radishes, topped and tailed, sliced and cut into half moons or matchsticks
Other Vegetable Options: green mangoes, green papaya, beetroot, fennel.
In a measuring jug or bowl combine the hot water with vinegar, salt and sugar. Stir well to dissolve. Pack the vegetables in a small bowl or mason jar and cover with the pickling solution. Keep the bowls in the fridge (I like a cold pickle). They are ready after an hour, but can be made a day ahead. drain well before serving (the leftover pickling solution is an excellent basis for another day's vinaigrette).
2 Tbsps coconut oil or vegetable oil
1/2 cup finely chopped shallots or onion
3 cloves (about 1 Tbsp) finely chopped garlic
3 Tbsp minced fresh ginger (about two thumb-sized pieces)
1 lb ground pork (or cooked leftover pork, chicken or beef chopped very finely)
2 Tbsp tamarind paste
2 Tbsp palm sugar (the spice shop on 1st Avenue sells it - or use brown sugar)
4 Tbsp fish sauce
1/3 finely chopped, roasted (unsalted) peanuts
1 cup water, plus 1/2 a cup
1/4 cup fish sauce
1 lime's juice (about 3 1/2 tablespoons)
2 Tbsps palm sugar or brown sugar
1 Tbsp ginger, chopped
1 Tbsp lemon grass heart, minced very fine
3 thin slices lime (or lemon), peel included, chopped very small
1 chopped, hot chile or 1 tsp dried flakes
Mix all sauce ingredients together, stir well to dissolve the sugar, and pour into a small bowl. For a large table double the quantity and use two bowls. Supply a teaspoon for drizzling sauce over each leaf wrap.
Wrapping and toppings:
Large, loose lettuce leaves, like Boston/butter lettuce, or Chinese cabbage, washed and dried. Budget about 4-5 leaves for each person.
2 cups lightly packed, washed Tai basil, cilantro (with stems), and mint leaves
1/2 cup slivered scallions/green onion
In the oil over medium heat fry garlic, shallots and ginger but do not brown. Add the ground pork or finely chopped leftover chicken, etc. Add tamarind, sugar, fish sauce and peanuts and stir well. once the bottom of the pan has begun to show sticky brown bits add the water (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. Add more liquid, scrape up brown bits, until the mixture is caramelly brown (stir very well and often, scraping up any bits that are stuck. You're making a dark paste). This part takes about 40 minutes. Taste for flavour balance: salty, sweet, sour? Good.
Take off heat and cool. Serve in a pretty bowl, with a spoon or two. You can make this a day in advance and chill...
When you are ready to eat:
On the table put a plate or plates stacked high with washed and dried lettuce leaves. More than you think you need. 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 a small amount of meat - the idea is that the meat does not dominate. Top with some scallions, carrot, and radish. Add some basil, cilantro and mint leaves. Spoon some of the sauce, in which the ginger, chile etc. are floating, on top of this. Fold the middle of the lettuce up and away from you, and then fold the sides over towards the each other. Now you have a bundle.
Pop in mouth. Chew.
Be happy. Feel your troubles float down the Mekong.
Best with cold beer.
Best with cold beer.