P.F. Changs may not have been the most authentic Asian restaurant we ever frequented in the States, but on our then extremely limited graduate student budgets we could go out to eat, be sure there was gluten free goodness, and get like 6 portions of food for $40 – a near steal for eating out. We would always order an appetizer, then my husband would get a fried rice and I’d get a rice noodle dish. Considering we were ordering as much for the leftovers as we were for the experience there, it was easier later if I also got a gluten free dish. One thing I can really commend them on, besides having a gluten free menu and system in place before most other restaurants knew what gluten free was, was their chicken lettuce wraps. I think they were our favorite dish out of the menu, and they certainly became a tradition of sorts whenever we went there.
Now that we live in the opposite of large-chain-restaurant-society, there haven’t been a whole of P.F. Changs’ lettuce wraps to enjoy. A local Vietnamese place we sometimes go to serves some rouleaux d’été that are fantastic, in rice wraps with shrimp and pork and a spicy dipping sauce. But we also can’t go out to eat and get 6 meals worth of food for $40 here (which probably isn’t a bad thing). So when we both got a craving for some chicken lettuce wraps, my google search led me to Wasabimon, a gluten free blog with a perfect looking copycat recipe.
I won’t bother reposting the recipe here, because I really didn’t change much – the sauce I kept the exact same, and the filling changes I made were relatively minor. I didn’t have any water chestnuts, so instead to add some crunch I added in slivered almonds, scallions and some fresh mung beans. And the black sesame seeds just help make it pretty.
We then made them again for some Swiss friends who came over one night as dinner guests. We paired the lettuce wraps with some coconut lime rice and sautéed shrimp, and I explained that while on the surface it may not look it, this meal was quite American. It’s not burgers and hotdogs and french fries American, but it is definitely in the spirit of American culture. A very fun side of American cuisine is often about incorporating elements of various nationalities all in one dish, or taking a couple key flavors and then reinventing them in a totally new way. So of course these chicken lettuce wraps aren’t an authentic Chinese cuisine. They are an entirely new creation altogether, and that is very American. Sometimes we Americans are a bit of a fondue pot, blending different varieties seamlessly together, and sometimes we are more of a beef stew, each individual element retaining its identity while still contributing to the overall concept. I think these lettuce wraps are a bit of both.
Living en Suisse, I was at first quite surprised to see the amount of cultural diversity within such a small country – and I surely have not seen everything, there are entire regions I have yet to travel to. I still haven’t figured out if the Swiss culture embodies more of a “melting pot” or “beef stew” concept – because as I, a foreigner, sees it, there are quite distinct cultures within this land, but there is also a strong sense of continuity and national pride, and each culture is markedly different from the bordering countries that share the same languages. Recently, I took a trip to a very unique area from my usual Suisse Romande; I ventured into Ticino, the Italian speaking canton. South of the Alps, it is warm with palm trees dotting the hillsides and roads, and terracotta rooftops make the towns look as if they were a scene taken right out of a quiet Italian countryside. And yet, if you look closer, everything is still decidedly Swiss (like being able to order un café en français without anyone batting an eye).
I also love learning about the history and age of a place. Take for example this small town near the Lago Maggiore, Verscio. Paintings adorn so many of the walls, and some have the luxury of displaying dates. One I saw was from 1740, over 250 years ago! Sometimes things can be slow to change en Suisse; it’s part of what makes everything so beautiful. I love new and modern like where I live, but I also have a place in my heart for the old and well-worn, for those places that you know have been around so long there must be some great stories hidden within the memories of those walls. I have a feeling this is one such place. After I got back from my excursion, I found this photo taken over 100 years ago of the very same church and vineyard that my own feet walked by mere days ago. It looks almost exactly the same to me, including the funky shaped steeple. The “old” part of town is still here, as it was then. Just a few generations later – different kids laughing as they amble down the streets, different puppies being walked by their owners, sniffing out all the scents of the past, but those same old walls. It’s quite magical really.
Maybe I think too much and get a bit too introspective about lettuce wraps. But I don’t mind, because then I can share with you so many other things than just the food that was on my plate. Because life is so much more than simply the food on our plates – it can even be the centerpiece of new memories made with great friends. Speaking of food, everything I had in Ticino was exquisite. From mountains of polenta that rivaled the Alps to fresh gelati alla fragola that took some serious self-control to not give yourself a brainfreeze because the flavor was so intense it was almost unreal, well it’s pretty obvious I was in a happy place. I will definitely be coming back to this region again
Also linked to – Slightly Indulgent Tuesdays
Disclaimer – I was not compensated nor asked to mention P.F. Changs in any way by anyone.