These pork lettuce wraps were inspired by a dish I had in New York at a magical restaurant called Up Thai. I ordered pork lettuce wraps as an appetizer and was so delighted with the taste that I swore I could make a meal out of those alone.
In this recipe, I use traditional Thai ingredients like shrimp paste, shallots, galangal, tamarind, and chili to bring about the salty, bitter, sour, spicy, and sweet flavors found in Thai cuisine. If you like Thai food, you’re going to love these lettuce wraps!
While I had to take a detour from my usual store to find some of these ingredients, I’m so happy I did. Going to the Asian market is one of my favorite pastimes, and it’s these little spontaneous acts that make life exciting. I roamed the aisles looking at all the wonderful goodies and feeling inspired by tapioca pearls, dried mushrooms, and an entire aisle devoted to fish sauce.
When I got married in Thailand four years ago, I went on a quest for spicy pork sausage. Many of the outdoor markets have these bright red pork sausages, but they aren’t refrigerated so the risk of food borne illness is high. Against my better judgment, I ate them anyway. I’m quite adventurous when in another country and ended up getting the worst case of food poisoning of my life on my wedding day.
I think it speaks very highly of Thai food, that I would continue to crave flavors that I associated with being ill. When I was in Thailand for over a month, I definitely wanted a break from the strong flavors and would seek things like salad with oil and vinegar to give my taste buds a break. I guess these lettuce cups are the best of both worlds because the ground pork is very strongly flavored, while the raw lettuce gives it a light, crisp lift.
Since the contrast of cooked and raw adds that wow factor, I suggest the following sides:
- chopped peanuts
- diced shallots
- shaved carrot
- shaved green papaya/mango
- fresh or dry thai chili
Being from Arizona, I prefer a spicier lettuce wrap and can adjust the seasoning by sprinkling extra thai chili flakes on top. This recipe is not very spicy so it shouldn’t offend people who can’t tolerate spicy food–I’m talking to you, Michiganders 🙂
Thai Lettuce Wraps
- pinch of kosher salt
- 1 clove garlic
- 3 dry Thai chilies
- 1 shallot
- 1- inch piece galangal, ginger as substitute
- 2- inch piece lemongrass, tough outside layer removed
- 1 T shrimp paste
- 3 T palm sugar cream, unrefined cane sugar as substitute
- 1 T tamarind paste, sold as a solid block with seeds removed
- 2 T water
- 1 T cooking oil, refined coconut oil, palm oil, or lard
- 1 pound ground pork
- 2 heads butter leaf lettuce, cleaned and leaves separated
toasted peanuts, diced shallot, diced thai chili, shredded carrot, cilantro, and lime for serving
- With a mortar and pestle, pound the salt, garlic, dried thai chilies, shallot, galangal, and lemongrass to form a smooth paste. Add shrimp paste and mash to combine. In a small pot, bring the palm sugar cream, tamarind paste, and water to a simmer over medium heat. Use a spoon to break up any chunks as much as possible, then strain using a sieve into the mortar and pestle. Use your spoon to scrape the strained tamarind sauce off of the bottom of the sieve.
- Warm a saute pan over medium heat with the oil. When it's hot, add the ground pork and transfer the paste to the pan. Saute, mixing with a wood spoon, 3 minutes. Keep the hot pork separate until ready to eat so as not to wilt the lettuce. I recommend serving with lime, diced shallot, chili, peanuts, cilantro, and carrot. Green papaya/mango would also make a nice topping.
*Inspiration: Up Thai restaurant