Lettuce may seem like the conspicuously tasteless foundation of just about every salad you’ve ever had in your life, but lettuce wraps have been with us for quite some time. Early references to an American lettuce wrap equivalent may be evident in newspaper articles describing “lettuce sandwiches” toward the very tail end of the 19th century. However, the overwhelming majority of these articles clearly identify the lettuce as a filling inserted between slices of bread.
All of that aside, undeniable allusions to the modern lettuce wrap began to hit America’s radar in the mid-1970s, and it’s been indelibly linked with Chinese cuisine from that point forward. Frankly, PF Chang’s menu wouldn’t be quite the same without them.
Perhaps it’s this cultural link to China, in part, that has many people in the U.S. wondering what is considered acceptable to serve both within and alongside lettuce wraps, with many even going so far as to wonder when it’s socially acceptable to serve them.
To help set us straight, I called upon executive chef and cookbook author Ara Zada to provide all of us with the permission we need to relax and enjoy lettuce wraps on our own terms without being beholden to the expectations imposed upon them by others.
What’s the deal with lettuce wraps?
I personally like lettuce wraps. More often than not, if a lettuce wrap is an option, I will get it. Most of the calories that are in excess when we’re eating a lot of food come from the bread. Lettuce-wrapped tacos and burgers are favorites of mine, although there’s nothing quite like a good taco with a fresh-made tortilla, or a burger with a fresh-made bun. If you like to eat those things daily and often, I’m a big fan of lettuce wraps; but as long as it’s very occasional, you can still enjoy that bread.
How frequently do you prepare lettuce wraps for others?
I don’t prepare lettuce wraps that much. Usually, when I have people over, if I’m cooking for them, I’m not going to give them the lighter version. I’m trying to give them something nice and memorable, and that doesn’t usually come with lettuce wraps, unless I’m throwing together a quick lunch for my girl and I. Otherwise, if I’m going out to a burger place, I would say a good 80 to 90 percent of the time I’m going to get the lettuce wrap option if they have one.
So this sounds like it’s about cutting carbs.
It’s strictly due to the carbs. I’m trying to keep carbs and starches down. I’m very active; I run a lot. The more strict I am about just getting protein and vegetables in me, the better I tend to feel. That’s just me.
What typically goes inside of a lettuce wrap? Are you strictly trying to replicate taco and burger content without the shells and buns?
That’s exactly what I’m doing. For tacos, I’ll take the buttered lettuce, then take everything I’d put in a taco and just put it inside of the lettuce instead. I don’t typically make lettuce-wrapped burgers at home. But like I said, if I go out, I’ll order a lettuce wrapped burger, and I’m trying to replicate everything I’d ordinarily put inside of that burger, and everything I would ordinarily put on a bun. The only problem is, I really like a fried egg in my burger, and it gets a little crazy when you wrap that in lettuce.
What, though, do you consider to be the ideal contents of a lettuce wrap?
It’s got to have good ground beef if I’m doing a burger equivalent. Obviously, the lettuce is already there, and then I like tomatoes, grilled onion, fresh jalapeños and bacon in it. Then I’ll add a mustard — no ketchup, no mayonnaise and no special sauce. I’m not a fan of anything you squirt into mayo and call a “special sauce”!
Your fellow cookbook writer Kate Leahy recommended thematically appropriate dipping sauces to be served alongside her preferred, themed lettuce wraps — like Hawaiian poke bowl, Southwest and Mediterranean. Do you have any opinion on what’s best to serve with your lettuce wraps?
For my lettuce wraps, I can’t put them down or turn them in a different direction. I can’t imagine myself trying to dip them without everything inside spewing out. I don’t even put a lettuce wrap down after the first bite. If I tried to dip it in something, I imagine everything would sort of fly out because there’s no grip on the lettuce!