Our experiments with colorful bánh tét and xôi (steamed sticky rice) started my fascination with gấc (spiny bitter gourd, sweet gourd, cochinchin gourd). Lamp and I both loved xôi gấc for its nuttiness and unique flavor. Gấc was also reported to be very well endowed with healthful phytochemicals. I was curious why such a colorful fruit with very distinctive taste is relegated to only one dish – sticky rice. I wanted to explore gấc’s potential when paired with other ingredients in different preparations. So far, we found we really liked pairing gấc & tofu wrapped in lá lốt (Piper lolot) and other herbs.
To highlight the flavor of gấc, I opted for a simple preparation:
- Lá lốt were washed and dried
- drained soft tofu of excess water by wrapping it in paper towel and placing a heavy dish on top for at least 30 minutes, then broke it up in small pieces with a fork
- gấc seed covering was obtained by beating gấc seeds with chopsticks in a sieve to ensure smoothness (a little bit of vodka was added to enhance the red coloring of gấc)
- mixed gấc & tofu together with a little bit of salt and sugar
- Wrapped tofu & gấc mixture in lá lốt and grilled
We were very excited by the results of this experiment. The simple preparation and tofu’s subtle hint of soybean flavor allowed the nuttiness of gấc to shine. We also loved the blend of flavors between gấc and lá lốt. And of course, how can we forget to mention that grilled lá lốt added the best fragrance to our kitchen. I could see myself playing with charred lá lốt in the near future! And while this wasn’t our original intention, when we looked at the finished dish, we realized we just made a vegan version of the traditional Vietnamese dish bò nướng lá lốt (grilled beef wrapped in lolot leaves)
Knowing us, you know we couldn’t just stop here. Besides lá lốt, we also played with other kinds of leaves: tía tô (Vietnamese shiso), kinh giới (Vietnamese lemon balm), trầu (betel leaves) & lá dứa (pandan leaves).
The verdict: Both tía tô and kinh giới yielded very interesting and delicious tasting rolls. While novel in Vietnamese grilling, shiso is commonly used in Japanese cuisine for that purpose, particularly paired with pickled plum and chicken. We did not find any other mention of kinh giới being used for grilling. We will use these herbs for rolling and grilling in future dishes.
Pandan leaves rolls were hard to roll, not pretty and also tasted quite boring. And the big no-no that we discovered was not to roll and grill lá trầu (betel leaves). Those rolls were unpalatable due to lá trầu’s overwhelming spiciness. Oh well.