This spicy chicken lettuce wraps recipe makes a Southeast Asian take on the Chinese lettuce cups from Southern China and Hong Kong, popularised in Chinese-Australian restaurants. Our minced chicken lettuce cups take inspiration from northern Southeast Asia, from both savoury larbs (minced meat salads) and the local custom of wrapping street food snacks in lettuce.
If there’s one thing that the pandemic has taught us, it’s to always ensure the freezer is stocked with a good supply of frozen minced meat – minced chicken, pork mince, ground beef, it all comes in handy – because you never know when there’s going to be a snap lockdown or your apartment building is going to be quarantined.
Minced meat is the perfect quarantine cooking ingredient – it’s versatile and affordable, it freezes well, it makes dishes that make great leftovers that also freeze well (hello, ragu Bolognese!), and it makes wondrous things such as chilli con carne, which can be stretched out over multiple dishes and meals (a good old bowl of chilli, quesadillas, and nachos, for starters).
Which all goes to explain our recently published Thai chicken larb recipe and collections of ground pork recipes and minced beef recipes, which have proved so popular. We should probably publish a compilation of chicken mince recipes too I guess. Before, I tell you all about this spicy chicken lettuce wraps recipe, I have a favour to ask.
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Spicy Chicken Lettuce Wraps Recipe for a Southeast Asian Take on Chinese San Choi Bao
Our spicy chicken lettuce wraps recipe makes a Southeast Asian take on the Chinese lettuce cups from Southern China and Hong Kong, popularised in the 1970s in Australian Chinese restaurants where the dish usually appears on menus as ‘sang choy bow’ and is made with pork, beef or chicken mince.
Lettuce wraps or lettuce cups are thought to have originated in Southern China, the world’s largest lettuce producer, and Hong Kong, where they’re called ‘san choi bao’, which means ‘lettuce wraps’ or ‘lettuce packets’, and are a Cantonese dish.
In Hong Kong, lettuce wraps typically came with minced pigeon, according to restaurateur Mathew Chan of Peacock Gardens Restaurant in Sydney, who claims to have brought ‘sang choy bow’ to Australia in the 1970s, but opted for pork, beef or chicken mince instead, as pigeon meat wasn’t used much in Australia at the time. (My dad called pigeons ‘flying rats’ back in the Seventies, which I believe was a widely held view at the time.)
Lettuce wraps with roast duck appear to be more popular these days. According to the South China Morning Post, they’re a much-loved Chinese New Year specialty. One Hong Kong lettuce wrap recipe I spotted on a food site called for leftover New Year’s roast duck.
The filling consisted of diced roast duck, minced water chestnuts, marinated and air-dried cured pork belly, sliced bamboo shoots, dried mushrooms, oyster sauce, and shao hsing rice wine; a combination known as the Shunde style from Guangdong.
Christine Ho, a Chinese food writer in Australia, makes her san choi bao (生菜包) with pork mince, onion, corn, celery, carrots, and capsicums. Christine says it’s called Qianlong San Choi Bao (乾隆生菜包) in some restaurants in China, due to a story about a Qianlong Emperor from the Ching Dynasty who ate lettuce wraps in Jiangnan and commended them.
We don’t see Chinese lettuce wraps as such here much in northern Southeast Asia, however, there’s definitely a custom of wrapping street food snacks in lettuce – everything from turmeric pancakes and fried treats to cold rice noodles and meatballs – especially here in Cambodia and in neighbouring Vietnam, and to a lesser extent in Thailand and Laos.
So after making Thai chicken larb the other day, it was a natural inclination to scoop some up in lettuce and wrap it up. Fortunately we had some more chicken mince in the freezer and this spicy chicken lettuce wraps are the result of those experiments. Just a few tips to making these spicy chicken lettuce wraps recipe.
Tips to Making These Spicy Chicken Lettuce Wraps Recipe
I only have a few quick tips to making this spicy chicken lettuce wraps recipe, because just like the Thai larb gai these are super easy to make and come together quickly. We recommend using a round bottomed wok which evenly distributes the heat.
As with the larb gai recipe, we use a chicken stock – opt for a homemade chicken stock, store-bought chicken stock, or even chicken boullion or chicken stock cubes; we leave it to you. Just make sure to stir the minced chicken continuously to ensure it isn’t lumpy and cooks evenly.
Whereas the larb gai was gently spiced, light and fragrant, these chicken lettuce wraps, while still spicy, are punchier in flavour due to the additional condiments. When making this mixture the first time you may wish to add half the amounts, taste, then add the remainder.
With Asian food, it’s so important to taste the seasoning and adjust to your liking. One person’s idea of salty or spicy or sweet or sour can be very different to another person’s, which is why there’s always a condiment caddy on the table at street food joints and casual eateries so individuals can customise dishes to their taste.
If it’s not spicy enough, add more chilli flakes, a splash of homemade Thai Sriracha sauce, more chilli slices, or even go for a hotter variety of chilli such as a bird’s eye, although the medium-sized chillies we get here in Siem Reap, which are milder elsewhere, are fiery here.
Spicy Chicken Lettuce Wraps Recipe
- 6 tbsp chicken stock
- 300 g chicken mince
- 3 garlic cloves finely diced
- ½ tsp salt
- ½ tsp sugar
- 2 tbsp lime juice
- 1 tbsp fish sauce to taste
- 1 tsp dark soy sauce to taste
- 1 tsp oyster sauce to taste
- 1 tsp chilli flakes
- 3 small purple shallots finely sliced
- 1 knob of ginger finely sliced into matchsticks
- ½ cup fresh coriander
- ½ cup fresh mint
- 1 long red chilli sliced
- 2 tbsp peanuts crushed
- lettuce leaves – little gem lettuce romaine or iceberg lettuce
- To a flat-bottomed wok on medium heat, add chicken stock, chicken mince, garlic, salt and sugar, and simmer until just cooked through, stirring continuously to break apart the chicken so it isn’t lumpy.
- Add the lime juice, fish sauce, light soy sauce, dark soy sauce, oyster sauce, chilli flakes, and taste, adjusting the seasoning as necessary to suit your taste.
- Add the shallots and half the ginger, and combine well, then just before serving, add half the fresh herbs, stir in, and taste to check the seasoning one last time, adjusting if necessary.
- Arrange lettuce leaves on a serving plate and scoop 2 tablespoons of chicken mince mixture onto the centre of each leaf.
- Arrange a few ginger matchsticks on the top of each mound of mixture, then sprinkle on the sliced chillies, crushed peanuts, perhaps more crushed chilli flakes (optional), and the rest of the fresh herbs.
- To eat, pick up the filled lettuce leaf and fold the edges over to create a package.
- If serving a group of guests, serve the remainder of the spicy chicken mince and a stack of lettuce leaves, and condiments on the side so guests can create their own lettuce wraps.
Please do let us know in the comments below if you make this spicy chicken lettuce wraps recipe for our Southeast Asian take on the Chinese restaurant favourite san choy bao as we’d love to know how it turns out for you.