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.