One of my favourite Chinese starters – Lettuce Wraps with pork or chicken, loads of hidden crunchy vegetables in a tasty savoury brown sauce, bundled up in fresh lettuce. Also known as San Choy Bow, it’s arguably the ultimate “just happens to be healthy” food in the whole wide world …..
The Chinese name for Lettuce Wraps is San Choy Bow which is how it’s written in menus at Chinese restaurants here in Sydney, though the spelling varies widely from place to place and I’m yet to find a definitive answer for what the proper spelling is.
I may not know how to spell it, but I do know you’re going to love them!!
HOW TO MAKE LETTUCE WRAPS
Lettuce wraps are a fantastic quick and easy meal that also happens to be healthy. A quick stir fry made with chicken, pork or turkey, some chopped vegetables cooked with a savoury Chinese sauce, spooned into lettuce cups, then wrapped into a roll shape to eat.
For a great Lettuce Wrap, it all comes down to the sauce. It takes more than just a splash of soy sauce to make a truly delish Lettuce Wrap.
Get the sauce right and you can pretty much put anything into the filling. And it is one of those rare recipes that is genuinely great made entirely vegetarian. I would just as happily scoff down a meat free version of this as I would a traditional pork version.
WHAT GOES IN A LETTUCE WRAP FILLING
I’m yet to find a reliable resource that specifies exactly what should go into a Lettuce Wrap filling. I don’t think there are definitive rules, but the common ingredients I see at Chinese restaurants are pork, water chestnuts and onion.
After this, things get a bit blurred. Baby corn, shiitake or other mushrooms and carrots are almost always in the filling. Then sometimes there are bean sprouts. And those that border more towards “Western” Chinese have all sorts of other vegetables in it, like normal corn, capsicum etc.
So I’ve made a version that is akin to what Chinese restaurants serve. It’s basically entirely brown – no pops of colour. While it’s not typically served with peanuts or shallots/scallions on top, I really love the extra something-something this adds. 🙂
STEP IT UP: WATER CHESTNUTS
If you can find them, I really urge you to use Water Chestnuts. It doesn’t have a strong flavour, but the unique thing about Water chestnuts is the texture. Even canned, it is crunchy and a bit juicy and it’s a quintessential part of the Chinese Lettuce Wrap experience. ☺️ Nowadays in Australia, they are found in both the Asian section and canned vegetable section of supermarkets.
As for what lettuce to use for Lettuce Wraps, the softer the better. Crispy lettuce like iceberg and Cos lettuce will crack when folded, causing all the tasty juices to run out while eating them.
So use lettuce with softer leaves. Butter lettuce or Bib Lettuce (in the States) are ideal.
Enjoy!– Nagi x
- 1 1/4 tsp cornflour / cornstarch
- 3 tbsp water, separated
- 1 1/2 tbsp light soy sauce (Note 1)
- 1 tsp dark soy sauce (Note 1)
- 2 tbsp oyster sauce
- 1 tsp sesame oil
- 2 tbsp Chinese cooking wine (Note 2)
- 1 tsp white sugar (can omit)
- 1 tbsp peanut oil
- 1 clove large garlic, minced
- 1/2 tsp ginger, minced
- 300g / 10oz pork mince (ground pork) (Note 3)
- 1/2 onion, finely chopped
- 1 small carrot, finely chopped
- 100g/ 3.5oz canned water chestnuts, drained and finely chopped (Note 4)
- 5 baby corn, canned or fresh, finely chopped (Note 4)
- 5 mushrooms, finely chopped(shiitake is best, I used Swiss Brown)
- 8 leaves large or 16 - 20 small lettuce, preferably soft (Note 5)
- Crushed peanuts
- Finely sliced scallions / shallots
Mix cornflour with 1 tbsp water until lump free. Then add remaining Sauce ingredients and mix.
Heat oil in a wok or large skillet over high heat. Add garlic and ginger, give it a quick stir then add onion.
Cook for 1 minute then add pork. Cook pork until it turns white.
Add all the vegetables. Cook for 2 minutes until the carrot is softened and pork is cooked through.
Add Sauce and cook for 1 1/2 minutes or until it thickens and glossy, coating the Filling.
Transfer Filling into serving bowl. Lay out lettuce leaves, peanuts and scallions on the side.
To serve, spoon some Filling into a lettuce leaf. Top with peanuts and scallions, bundle it up and enjoy!
1. The light soy sauce adds the salt and the dark soy sauce adds a touch of colour. You can sub the dark soy with more light soy sauce, or just sub both the light and dark with ordinary soy sauce. The filling will just be a bit lighter in colour. Don't just use all dark soy sauce - flavour is way too strong - or with a thick sweet soy sauce like kecap manis.
2. Can sub with dry sherry or chicken broth.
3. Also great with chicken but I prefer pork because it's not as lean and has slightly more flavour. Chinese restaurants typically use pork. Never seen it with beef or lamb! Can also sub with 2 1/2 cups of chopped veggies of choice.
4. See in post for a photo of water chestnuts. These are a key ingredient in San Choy Bow as served at Chinese restaurants here in Australia. They have a natural light flavour, but it's the texture that is unique - a fresh crunchiness.
Nowadays these are sold in both the Asian and canned vegetable section of major supermarkets.
5. Typically served at Chinese restaurants using crisp iceberg lettuce leaves which are cut into neat rounds so they are all the same size. My preference is to use soft lettuce leaves like Butter Lettuce or Bibb Lettuce (US) because iceberg has a tendency to crack when rolled to eat, causing juices to run out. I used Baby Gem Lettuce in the photos which come in twin packs at Woolworths.
6. I use 3/4 cup of each vegetable (inc onion) so in total I use 2 1/2 cups of chopped vegetables. You can substitute with whatever chopped vegetables you want, though I urge you to stick with the onion.
The meat can be substituted with 2 1/2 cups of any vegetable or chopped firm tofu. For a super quick version, make this with pork + frozen diced vegetables. Works a treat!
This recipe makes enough for 3 as a main (4 if it's 2 adults and 2 kids) or around 6 as a starter.
7. Nutrition per serving, assuming 4 servings. This is a fantastic healthy dinner!
* Originally published February 2017, post writing tidied up and new photos added May 2018.
WATCH HOW TO MAKE IT
San Choy Bow (Chinese Lettuce Cups) recipe video!
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