One of my favourite appetizers while I was in Vietnam earlier this year was Lá Lốt Beef Rolls — fragrantly seasoned little grilled rolls of beef wrapped in Lá Lốt leaves typically grilled over a charcoal flame. Very popular in Vietnamese cuisine, these rolls can be served as part of Bo Bay Mon (seven courses of beef) or on their own, as delicious appetizers. Lá Lốt, also called Wild Betel, grows wild throughout much of Vietnam, making this herb a popular and inexpensive ingredient throughout south-east Asian cuisine.
Wild Betel growing in an Organic Garden in Ninh Van Bay, Vietnam
Shiny on one side and matte on the other, the soft, pliable heart-shaped leaves don’t have much character until heat is applied to them, at which point they release a sweet and spicy, incense-like fragrance.
My great friend Barb brought me La Lot leaves as a gift
Available in many Vietnamese and Chinese markets these days, Wild Betel can be found locally in Toronto at the Kensington Market or T&T, making this delicious recipe easily accessible to anyone interested in capturing one of the truly unique flavours of Vietnam.
The fragrant marinade has a lovely saffron hue from the curry powder
To begin, a fragrant marinade is prepared using lemongrass, minced garlic, curry powder, oyster sauce, fish sauce and a tablespoon of cornstarch, which is added to the minced beef (Bo), to bind the mixture together. Covered to marinate in the refrigerator for at least two hours, the beef absorbs these aromatic spices, making a wonderfully fragrant filling for the Bo La Lot.
The minced beef needs to marinate for a while to lock in the aromatic flavours
Making the rolls is simple: A tablespoon of the fragrant beef mixture is placed onto the matte side of each leaf and rolled up, tucking in the sides of the leaf as you proceed. Each of the rolls are placed seam side down on a plate, brushed with some oil and pan fried over medium heat until the leaves appear charred and the filling is cooked through.
Rolling a dollop of beef mixture in the leaf
In their raw form, Betel leaves have little fragrance, but when grilled, the leaves impart a truly unique aroma to the beef, and also help seal in the beef's moisture and juices.
The beef rolls are pan-fried in a little oil for about 8-10 minutes
Bo La Lot is usually served with a dipping sauce, typically Nuoc Cham, which adds a wonderful spicy complexity to these fragrant little parcels. Topped with some fresh mint, chopped red chilies or dry roasted peanuts, Bo La Lot makes a delicious and unique appetizer, in addition to being a superb ambassador for Vietnamese cuisine.
Grilled Lá Lốt (Wild Betel) Beef Rolls
Makes 24 rolls
1 lb ground beef
24 large wild betel leaves
1 tablespoon oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tbsp minced lemongrass, or Gourmet Garden Lemongrass
2 shallots, minced
1 tsp curry powder
1 tsp oyster sauce
2 tsp fish sauce
1 tbsp cornstarch
2 tsp sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp fresh ground black pepper
Combine the marinade ingredients in a bowl and mix well. Add the ground beef and blend to combine. Cover and chill for at least 2 hours.
To make the beef roll, place 1 tablespoon of the beef mixture onto the betel leaf. Fold one end over the filling, fold in the sides and roll up tightly, placing it seam side down on a tray. Continue to make all the rolls in this manner.
Brush the rolls with a little oil. In a large skillet, add 2 tablespoons of oil over medium heat, and pan fry the rolls until the rolls appear charred in colour and the filling is cooked through, about 5 minutes each side.
Serve the beef rolls along side a small bowl of Nuoc Cham, and garnish decoratively with some chopped mint, red chilis or dry roasted peanuts.
'Gourmet Garden Lemongrass'
Makes about 2 cups
5 tbsp sugar
3 tbsp water
1/3 cup fish sauce
1/2 cup lime juice (about 3 limes)
1 large clove garlic, minced
2 Thai chilies, seeded and minced
1 shallot, minced
Whisk together the sugar, water, fish sauce, and lime juice in a bowl until the sugar is completely dissolved. Add the garlic, chili, and shallot and let stand for 30 minutes before serving alongside the beef rolls.