I got a yen for wild betel in Vieng Xay, in a laid-back local market that sold an assortment of lunch pickings—sticky rice, sour bamboo, tangy dollops of jaeow, spicy little meatballs and grilled buffalo (above, middle, left of the balls) that had been mixed with onions and spices, wrapped in betel leaves and grilled over flames. Something happens when wild betel is cooked. It pops with fragrance, in an earthy, minty, almost flowery bouquet. It’s stunningly delicious, and I know of no other leaf that compares. (Plus, it fights atherosclerosis—at least in rabbits.)
In Vietnamese, that leaf is known as la lot. And by the time we were deep inside Vietnam a week later, we’d eaten our way through myriad mixtures of meat cooked in wild betel (usually grilled but sometimes fried). In Sapa, our Hmong friend stuffed a batch of betel leaves with ground pork and spring onion, nothing more, and plopped them into a splattering wok of hot oil. They fried to a beautiful brownish crisp—and tasted heavenly.
We’re back home in New Mexico now, but we’re blessed with a great Asian market. I found betel (it’s sold on the stem; if packaged neatly on a tray with stems removed, it’s probably the chewing betel —not what you want for this dish). Using Andrea Nguyen’s recipe as a guide, and recalling the flavors we’d had in Vieng Xay, this is the recipe that emerged:
1 lb ground beef
1 package wild betel (about 25 leaves)
1 stalk lemongrass
several cloves green garlic
salt and pepper to taste
1 teaspoon fish sauce
1 tablespoon curry powder (I used Penzeys Maharajah)
1. Soak several bamboo skewers in water.
2. Mince one stalk lemongrass (tender insides only) and a few cloves of fresh green garlic (or ordinary garlic, small fragrant cloves preferred for a sweeter, less biting flavor)
3. Mix ground beef (I used lean grass-fed, which tended toward the dry side; I might add a bit of minced pork next time) with lemongrass, garlic, salt and black pepper to taste, a few squirts of fish sauce and 1 tablespoon Penzeys Maharajah curry powder. (My brother and sister-in-law had given us a whole box of Penzeys curries just before we left the country. We’d hardly had a chance to use them; this was a perfect excuse). Let sit at least one hour.
4. Clean the leaves and flatten, placing shiny side down on the counter and stem pointing toward you. Fill each leaf with a small, long strip of meat mixture. Roll the leaf lengthwise around the meat and skewer. The skewer will hold the leaves in place. It’s OK to leave a little extra space around the ends of the meat, but don’t overfill the leaves.
5. Drizzle the skewers with oil and grill over medium heat with vents open until leaves are slightly charred (but don’t burn). Serve with your favorite spicy sauce. I made a Lao-style jaeow with smoked morita chiles pounded with garlic, galangal and fish sauce.
It was an easy, extraordinarily delicious success—thanks to those ambrosial leaves. Some recipes call for grape leaves as substitutes, but I’m with Andrea on this: grape leaves offer none of the fragrance. HOWEVER, I’ve been thinking of using grape leaves (since we have ginormous quantities growing in the backyard) in a different sort of way—stuffed with ground lamb, perhaps, and Mediterranean spices? Dolmas with just the meat and spice, minus the rice? Drizzled with lemon and olive oil, served with hummus and olives? Just a thought….