Memorial Day weekend kicks off the grilling season for many Americans, and while I grilled my share of pork ribs last weekend, I also made grilled beef in wild betel leaf. They’re fragrant, fun, and delicious. They’re a favorite Vietnamese snack that’s great with cold beer or white wine. When the rolls are cooking, the perfume of the leaves, called la lot (“lah loht”) in Vietnamese, mesmerizes. The fragrance is uncommon and distinctive. You know it when you smell it.
Wild betel leaves are botanically Piper sarmentosum. They are NOT the same as the thick, large, dull betel leaves chewed on as a stimulant; those are botanically Piper betle. If you've purchased the stimulating leaves, know that I have shared in your mistake. Laugh it off and get the right ones. Inspect the leaves and labeling at the store.
La lot is related to black pepper. The soft, pliable leaves that don’t display their perfume character until heat is applied to them, at which point they release their sweetly spicy, incense-like fragrance. In other parts of Southeast Asia, wild betel leaves may be cut and enjoyed raw in salads. In Thailand, the raw whole leaves are used to encase little tidbits for a popular street snack called miang kam (mieng kham). In Vietnam, the classic dish is thit bo nuong la lot, which entails rolling up seasoned ground beef in the leaf and grilling up the result. I enjoy la lot in many ways but this Viet preparation is a personal favorite.
La lot (“lah loht”) is sold at many Vietnamese and Chinese markets on Styrofoam trays in the produce section. Look for ones with healthy green color on the leaves. The heart-shaped leaves are shiny on one side and matted on the other. A few holes here and there are okay.
Once home, snip off the bottom ½ inch (1.25 cm) of stem and put the leaves in a small container partially filled with water. Loosely cover with a plastic bag and refrigerate for up to four days. If you like, you can trim, wash and spin the leaves dry; keep them in a ziplock bag for several days.
My husband Rory adores beef in la lot and my mom taught him a nifty, old-fashioned trick for rolling them up. Instead of skewering the rolls to hold their shape and to grill them, she dispenses with the skewers and uses the leaf stem to secure the roll in place. She then broils them in the oven. No burnt up bamboo skewers to deal with. Rory is now our family’s master of making these rolls. "Even a white guy can do this," he says. That’s why I make the filling, he preps the leaves, rolls up the meat and grills the rolls! Together we divide and conquer.
Eat the rolls on their own but they’re better (more textures and flavors, as well as healthier) with some nuoc cham dipping sauce, tangy pickle of daikon and carrot (same as what you’d use for banh mi!), and lettuce. If you have other banh mi pickles around, try it with these rolls. The citrusy red cabbage and snow pea and lemongrass pickles from The Banh Mi Handbook (pages 34 and 37) would be fabulous because of their shape and flavor. You could use any variant on the classic daikon and carrot pickle too; the book offers suggestions for your to consider.
Add a small handful of crushed peanuts to the filling if you want extra texture. If you’re interested in growing la lot, here’s a post on how to propagate the plant from a cutting.
Grilled Beef in Wild Betel Leaf
Thit Bo Nuong La Lot
Yield: Makes 26 to 30 rolls, enough for 6 as a snack
- Generous 1 pound (450 g) ground beef, chuck preferred
- Brimming ¼ cup finely chopped green onion, green and white part
- 2 teaspoons fish sauce
- Scant ½ teaspoon salt
- ¾ teaspoon ground black pepper
- 2 to 3 teaspoons Madras curry powder, Sun brand preferred
- 1 to 2 tablespoons club soda, Pellegrino or other bubbly water
- About 4 ounces (115 g) la lot wild betel leaves with the stems attached, enough to yield 26 to 30 large leaves
- 1 tablespoon neutral flavored oil, such as canola
- 1 recipe Basic Dipping Sauce(nuoc cham), made with the addition of minced garlic
- 1 recipe Daikon and Carrot Pickle (do chua)
- Leaves from 1 large head soft leaf lettuce, such as butter, red, or green leaf
- In a bowl, combine the beef with green onion, fish sauce, salt, pepper, and curry powder. Add the soda water and mix in enough to yield a soft mixture. The soda water hydrates and keep the filling moist during cooking. Cover and set aside to marinate while you prepare the leaves.
- If you haven’t, use scissors or your fingers to detach the leaves from their center stems. Make sure to keep the leaf stem attached to the leaf. You’ll need it later for creating the rolls.
- To make the rolls, put a leaf on your work surface, matted side up. Take a bit of meat (about 2 tablespoons) and use your hand to shape it into a small sausage of sorts. Place the meat on the leaf, about a third of the way below the pointy tip. The length of the sausage doesn’t need to span the full width of the leaf because the leaf shrivels during cooking. Roll up the meat in the leaf and use the little stem to seal it up. The roll will keep its shape. Place the finished roll on a foil-lined baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining leaves until all the beef is used. Rub a bit of oil on each roll when all are done.
- To cook, position an oven rack on the top third of the oven and preheat to broil. Slip the baking sheet into the oven and broil for 6 to 8 minutes, turning them frequently to cook evenly and prevent too much charring of the leaf. The cooked rolls will feel firm, look a bit shriveled, and be slightly charred at the edges.
- Instead of broiling, grill outdoors over a medium charcoal fire (you can hold your hand over the rack for only 4 to 5 seconds) or heat a gas grill to medium. Grill the rolls, with the top open most of the time so you may constantly monitor their progress and move them around to avoid burning the leaves. (The heat will go to about medium-low because you'll have the lid open.)
- Transfer to a plate and serve with the dipping sauce, pickle, and lettuce. Invite guests to encase a beef roll in lettuce, add some pickle, and dip in sauce.