Fragrantly seasoned grilled rolls of beef wrapped up in wild
betel leaf (lá lốt) are a favorite Vietnamese snack that’s great with cold beer
or white wine. When the rolls are cooking, the perfume of Piper sarmentosum is
mesmerizing and fills the room. Shiny on one side and matted on the other, the soft, pliable leaves don’t have
much character until heat is applied to them, at which point they release their
sweetly spicy, incense-like fragrance. (Many recipes suggest substitute grape leaves but what's the use? Those leaves are devoid of the fragrance that these have and that's the beauty of this special ingredient!)
Lá lốt (“lah loht”) is sold at many Vietnamese and Chinese markets on Styrofoam trays. Look for ones with healthy green color on the leaves. The heart-shaped leaves are shiny on one side and matted on the other. A few holes here and there are okay. Once home, snip off the bottom ½ inch of stem and put the leaves in a small container partially filled with water. Loosely cover with a plastic bag and refrigerate for up to four days. I’ve found that this is the best way to keep them fresh and perky.
My husband, Rory, loves beef in lá lốt and my mom taught him a nifty, old-fashioned trick for rolling them up. Instead of skewering the rolls to hold their shape and to grill them, she dispenses with the skewers and uses the leaf stem to secure the roll in place. She then broils them in the oven. No burnt up bamboo skewers to deal with. Rory is now our family’s master of making these rolls. "Even a white guy can do this," he says.