Betel plants originated from Southeast Asia and has been cultivated for thousands of years. High in antioxidants, their uses have included, but are not limited to medicinal healing, stimulants, and even breath fresheners. In India, it’s even consider an aphrodisiac. The betel plant is part of the pepper family and includes two varieties, piper sarmentosum and piper betle.
In Vietnamese culture, the piper betle is also called trau and is used to “begin the converstation”…in other words, helps break the ice in awkward situations among adults as these were passed around as it were chewing gum…of course this was in the days of our grandparent’s generation and not so much any more today due to the unflattering staining of teeth black when chewing these leaves with the areca nut.
Betel leaves also have symbolic meaning in traditional Vietnamese weddings where the groom would offer betel leaves among other gifts to the bride’s family. Hence the Vietnamese phrase “chuyện trầu cau“ meaning “matters of betel and areca,” is synonymous with marriage.
Aside from these cultural significance, the piper sarmentosum— also called la lot or wild betel leaves, are very popular in Vietnamese cuisine as well. Bo la lot is beef wrapped in betel leaves which are typically grilled over a charcoal flame and is served as part of bo bay mon (seven courses of beef), with bun (vermicilli noodles), wrapped in lettuce rolls, wrapped in rice paper as a spring roll, or served on it’s own as appetizers. In raw form there is not much of a fragrance, but when grilled, the betel leaves impart a wonderful herbacious and slightly peppery aroma to the beef. The aroma is truly unique and it also helps to seal in the beef’s moisture and juices. Other Asian cultures use la lot to make salads as well as soups. Fresh and frozen betel leaves can be found at your Asian grocery. If you can’t find them, substitute with perilla (shiso).
Traditionally ground beef is used, but you can use other ground meats (such as pork or chicken) as well. I decided to combine chicken and beef and it turned out great especially when I have some friends that can’t eat pork. Bo la lot is usually served alongside with dipping sauce, typically nuoc mam cham but we’ve even seen mam nem, or peanut sauce used.
Bo La Lot (Betel Wrapped Beef) This recipe can make about 20-24 rolls.
- 1 lb of ground beef (or you can also use a mixture such 1/2 beef and pork or 1/2 beef and chicken)
- 1/2 tablespoon of finely minced garlic
- 1/2 tablespoon of finely minced shallots
- 1 tablespoon of curry powder
- 2 tablespoon of chopped lemon grass
- 2 teaspoons of fish sauce
- 2 teaspoons of sugar
- 1 teaspoon of cracked pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon of salt
- 1 package of fresh or frozen betel leaves (if none availble, use perilla leaves. If using frozen betel leaves, allow to defrost outside and separate leaves and allow to dry slightly on paper towels before wrapping )
- 3 tablespoons roasted peanuts, coarsely chopped
- 4 tablespoons of scallion oil (heat 4 tablespoons of olive oil, remove from heat and add finely chopped scallions)
In a large bowl, combine meat with garlic, shallots, lemongrass, curry, fish sauce, sugar, pepper and salt and mix well and set aside in fridge and prepare leaves.
There are multiple options when cooking bo la lot. In Vietnam, these are grilled over small charcoal ovens, but you have multiple great options. You can grill using skewers or a grilling basket or broil in the oven for about 6-8 minutes, turning a few times to prevent the leaves from burning.
You can also just sautee these with a bit of oil in a pan, or what we did was sauteed it about 2 minutes to keep the meat moist and then quickly seared it on the grill to char the leaves. Flip once to prevent the leaves from burning.
Top with dry roasted peanuts and scallion oil and serve immediately. We served ours with bun thit nuong, and cha gio (egg rolls).
Our parents actually recently met. I wish I had something like betel leaves to break the ice during the initial awkward moments…