Saturday, February 7, 2015

Bo Nuong La Lot (Grilled Beef Wrapped in Wild Betel Leaf)--makes 20 rolls

I have always wanted to make the Vietnamese bò nướng lá lốt or grilled beef wrapped in wild betel leaf but did not have access to these leaves. During my last visit to Vietnam my uncle bought me some rolls from Soctrang after he heard I wanted a taste. Those rolls were very dark, almost black. I also ate some freshly grilled rolls from a young vendor at a Khmer temple (in Soctrang). He used the back of his scooter to grill these beautiful neatly wrapped rolls on a skewer and sold them directly from there! What a true entrepreneur. Only in Southeast Asia in countries such as Vietnam will you see this type of business exist frequently and freely. Witnessing such hard work and dedication from the local people makes me feel good and excited to be here. Both rolls tasted good except they contained far more fat than meat. My cousin Hui Chieu (Hue Chau) and I agreed that the vendors need to make a profit and meat is costly.

grilled beef wrapped in wild betel leaf (bo nuong la lot) that
my uncle bought in Soctrang for me to try (2013)
--beautiful skewers of grilled beef wrapped in wild betel leaf (2013)--
(bo nuong la lot)
a few hungry but happy young customers
waiting patiently for the grilled rolls (2013)
--skewers of "bo nuong la lot" on wheels (2013)--
What a great way to turn your scooter into a business!
This can only happen in places like Vietnam!!
Living in the East Coast it is difficult to find these leaves. Actually I have never seen them sold even in any of the Asian markets in Boston. I also have never seen it sold in An Trach Market (Vietnam). I think there is just not enough demand for these leaves.

The other day I visited An Trach Market and asked a few vendors where I can find some of these leaves. One of them asked me how much I want as she has some growing in her yard. I told her I want a small bag, some larger leaves for grilling and some young leaves for stir frying. When I asked her how much she responded that I can pay her however much I want. She asked me to return the next morning for them I knew she leaves the market around 10 each morning. The following morning I came to see her early. She admitted she had not been watering them. She was afraid to pick the leaves for me since she thought they looked too old and dried. She motioned to the woman sitting diagonally from her telling me she has some in her yard and I can pick them free of charge. She must have asked around after realizing she can't get any! I asked the woman for the location of her home and the next day I rode my borrowed bicycle down Highway 1 in search for the sugar cane machine (which was the landmark). After a short ride I found the machine and stopped to ask the woman vendor if the wild betel leaves are the green clump I saw growing on the side. I was quite surprised that the leaves looked so healthy...a little dusty but healthy. Later the man sitting next to the vendor woman started to talk to me, telling me the leaves are "nen thuot" meaning it has good medicinal purposes. He did not elaborate further. I was concerned about people discarding trash or even urinating on the plants but he assured me they are clean but just dusty. I parked my bicycle and started to harvest the leaves found highest from the ground. The woman came over and helped me. At the end she suggested that I pull some with the roots to take back to grow. I pulled one and she laughed and said that is not enough so she started to pull out a few more handfuls for me. After all the picking I decided to buy a sugar cane drink from her. I noticed she has one of those hand crank old-fashioned ones that required a lot of strength. I ended up purchasing 2 for less than $1 USD. You may check out my posting on Sugar Cane on the Rocks. I thanked them, told them I will return for more drinks another time and rode back home with my goodies. 

hand crank old-fashioned sugar cane machine
(as you can see from this photo it takes muscles
from all extremities just to squeeze some juice!)
Once home I cleaned the leaves well and placed them in plastic bags in the refrigerator. I soaked the plants with roots in a bucket of water for a few days to help take root.

Today I made charcoal grilled beef wrapped in wild betel leaves (bo nuong la lot) with a few special pork rolls for my grandmother (since she does not eat beef). For my grandmother's rolls I added less ingredients to make it easy for her to eat. I spoke to a number of people at the market and my relatives (here in An Trach) and everyone tells me beef and lemongrass are the 2 main ingredients found wrapped in these wild betel leaves. Since I have some nice tender young leaves I sliced them and add to the meat to make it look and taste unique. My cousin Hui Chieu tells me her husband Nha have made these in the past. Nha picked the leaves from his parents' home (which is not close--I visted once and it took us 2 ferry crossings to get to their home). Chieu suggests I wrap the rolls in bun (fresh round rice noodles), some vegetables and herbs and dip in a special mam nem sauce. It sounds great but I was not sure how my rolls were going to taste. I am glad she talked me into adding these extra wrapping ingredients because it turned the rolls into a special meal. Also her mam nem (fermented fish dip) is excellent and goes well with the rolls. Even my grandmother ate her rolls with the sauce! Somehow food tastes much better when you go an extra mile (literally in my case) for the ingredients!

wild betel leaves (la lot)
wild betel leaves with roots for planting
wild betel leaves with roots soaking in water for a few days
prior to planting (to help the roots take)
my harvest
washed and dried leaves
cleaned leaves are bagged and kept in refrigerator

Grilled Beef Wrapped in Wild Betel Leaf (Bo Nuong La Lot)--makes 20 rolls


20 small young leaves, chiffonade
1 tsp of oil (plus more for greasing the grill)
300 gram (about 10.6 oz) beef, cut into thin slices or small cubes
1 large lemongrass, chopped (about 2 Tbsp)
1 scallion, chopped (about 2 Tbsp)
1 shallot, chopped (about 2 Tbsp)
1 Tbsp chopped garlic
1/2 tsp grated ginger
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp oyster sauce
20 large young wild betel leaves with about 1/4 inch stems, washed and drained
Roasted peanuts, chopped (garnish)


1) Stack the 20 young leaves, fold in half and chiffonade. Saute in about 1 tsp of oil for about 15-20 seconds or until the leaves are just wilted. Remove from heat and set aside.
2) In a meat grinder place the beef, lemongrass, scallion, shallot, garlic, ginger, salt, sugar, and oyster sauce inside. Pulse a few times until the meat is just grounded and all ingredients are blended. Avoid grinding too long.
3) Remove and stir in the wilted young leaves. Use a chopstick or fork and mix everything until well blended. Avoid over mixing.
4) Portion the meat out to 20 pieces and gently shape each piece into a small log.
5) With the shiny side of the leaf facing down, add the meat (log) closer to the tip. Gently roll the leaf with the meat up towards the stem. Either use the stem or a toothpick and poke a hole at the end (in the middle of the roll) and put the stem inside to hold the roll in place.
6) Repeat until you have complete all the rolls.
7) Oil the grill (I use a clean paper towel). Place the rolls on the grill over low to medium-low heat (as the leaves will burn easily). It will take about 5-7 minutes to grill (depending on your grill).

chiffonade the young leaves
sautee the young leaves with a little oil
until wilted
pulse a few times to grind the meat
and blend all the ingredients together
add the sauteed wild betel leaves to the meat and mix well
roll the meat into logs
with the shiny part of the leaf facing
down, add the meat log by the tip
start rolling towards the stem
puncture a hole at the end to poke
the stem inside to secure the roll
once done they should look like these
grill these over charcoal
*If you are using charcoal spread the hot charcoal around in order to lower the heat and to help cook the rolls evenly.
*My cousin and aunt do not think the lemongrass is too much although I thought it was slightly too much. The next time I will use 1 1/2 tablespoons of chopped lemongrass instead. Also the next time I will make the log meat skinnier and longer so it will be the same length as the widest part of the leaf. This way the leaf will not burn as much during grilling. 
*Everyone seem to be ok with the seasoning. My uncle thinks it needed a little more sugar. He ate it plain without any dipping or added garnish.
*For my grandmother's pork rolls I used pork mix with a little chopped garlic, shallot, scallion, ginger, salt, sugar and oyster sauce. I left out the wild betel leaves and the lemongrass. I made 7 rolls and she ate 6 of them telling me she really liked them! My aunt ate one. I can't tell you how they taste since I did not eat any.
*If you do not have a meat grinder then you may use a cleaver to mince the meat and the ingredients.  I use 2 cleavers to mince the meat as this will speed up the process. It turns out my grandmother also used the same. She tells me she had to do everything quickly.
*You can read more about the wild betel leaf or piper sarmentosum. There is another type of betel leaf but it is used for recreational chewing. My late paternal grandmother used to chew this along with this red paste and spit it out! 
*The fresh leaves have a nice fragrance and it tastes a little peppery. However once grilled the same fragrance and peppery taste is gone and the beef and lemongrass take over.
*Some people outside of Vietnam use grape leaves in place of the wild betel leaves. You may use these but try to substitute with the young fresh leaves instead of those found in jar.

Mam Nem Nuoc Cham--my cousin's way


1/2 cup finely chopped pineapple
80 mL (1/3 cup) mam nem
80 mL (1/3 cup) water
2 garlic cloves, smashed and minced
2-2 1/2 tsp sugar
1/4 tsp MSG


Cook all ingredients together for about 5 minutes.

*My grandmother ate this sauce and said it was very good. It must be very good since I have never seen her eat any fermented fish in my life. My cousin Mien Lai stopped by in the evening and ate 2 rolls with the sauce and said the sauce was very good. He has never eaten bo nuong la lot before.
*My mother tells me to add grated ginger to this sauce next time. She normally makes it with a little ginger.

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