Lettuce cups at a Chinese restaurant seem like a cliche -- a dish that easily falls under suspicion as one of those faux Chinese dishes made up for Western palates.
In truth, it’s a bona fide traditional dish, made popular in Hong Kong’s restaurants decades ago. It was a minor stroke of genius when Cantonese cooks took the yang of a hot stir-fry and added the yin of a cool leaf of lettuce.
The marvelous contrast of the lettuce cup extends to the filling, which brings together crunchy vegetables and tender meat -- pork, chicken or squab, a bird with delicately flavored dark meat. Hoisin sauce is often served on the side, but the mark of a great filling is that the optional sauce is just that -- optional.
Sure, you can find lettuce cups in restaurants, but make them at home and your effort will be amply rewarded. All a cook needs to do is bring in flavor right from the start, long before filling meets lettuce. Just because the Chinese restaurant around the corner blands it down doesn’t mean the possibilities aren’t great.
It so happens that one of the most traditional Cantonese fillings is based on an intensely flavorful ingredient rarely seen on menus these days: dried oysters.
These have a concentrated briny flavor, and Chinese cooks tend to use them sparingly, adding depth by using just a few of them in vegetable stews or pork broths. Dried oysters are used more generously on special occasions, partly because they’re regarded as luxurious and perhaps mostly because their Cantonese name, hoe see, sounds like the word for “good things.” Put that together with a homonym for lettuce, saang choy, and you’ve got a dish that says good things are coming your way. Think new years and birthdays.
An old family cookbook from Hong Kong called “Chopsticks Recipes, Traditional Dishes” turned up a somewhat cryptic recipe that turned out to be spectacularly good. The ingredient list was on the long side, playing up traditional ingredients such as bamboo shoots, fresh water chestnuts, pickled vegetables and dried shiitake mushrooms.
Try making dried oyster lettuce cups and you’ll see that they’re special for another reason: They require some time and effort. The cooking itself takes just a few minutes, but first you’ve got to gather up and slice, dice and grate the ingredients. And unless you already have a Chinese pantry, you’ll have to go shopping.
The oysters, which must be softened by hours of soaking, are mixed with two kinds of pork, an assortment of fresh vegetables (snow peas, bamboo shoots, carrots and water chestnuts) for crunch, and various herbs, spices and seasonings, including cilantro, ginger and sesame oil, to round off the flavors.
When buying dried oysters, choose the larger, meatier ones (at least 3/4 -inch wide). The dish also calls for Sichuan preserved vegetable, which means you should get the pickled tuber of the mustard greens (and not the leaves). And if you can find them, buy fresh bamboo shoots (sold either in vacuum-sealed plastic bags or in bulk at the produce section of a Chinese market) and fresh water chestnuts, which are crisper and sweeter (like jicama) than their canned counterparts.
As with everything about this dish, every bit of effort pays off with a whole lot of flavor. The overall reward is a deliciously unique dish -- one that you most likely can’t have unless you make it yourself.
Chef Andrew deGroot offers a more modern take at Yu Restaurant in Santa Monica. For his beef lettuce wraps, he brings in a battalion of flavors by combining browned ground beef with a tantalizing combination of sweet, salty and spicy sauces and finishing it with fresh mint and cilantro.
DeGroot serves the filling with bibb lettuce, also called Boston or butterhead lettuce, making more of a wrap than a cup because you can fold the leaves’ frilly edges over the filling. “We’ve used iceberg and Romaine,” he says, “but we found it works just as well with the butter lettuce because it’s already shaped like a cup.”
You can mix and match lettuces with fillings, and even venture past the usual suspects.
Radicchio leaves, for example, set off a shrimp-artichoke filling beautifully. In this version, tender-crisp shrimp gets a flavor punch from lemongrass and a slight crunch from blanched artichoke hearts, which make a nice modern stand-in for bamboo shoots or water chestnuts. The filling has added texture from crisp-fried rice vermicelli and a pleasantly bitter edge from the radicchio leaf (OK, radicchio isn’t really lettuce, but it works well as a cup).
With lettuce cups, there’s no limit to playing with the flavors inside and out. Nor should there be. With a dish this fun to eat, making it should have a spirit of adventure -- whether you’re coming up with your own modern version or trying an old recipe with exotic ingredients.