Fast fusion to share: Lara Lee’s recipes for Chinese pork lettuce cups and prawn and noodle salad

Fast fusion to share: Lara Lee’s recipes for Chinese pork lettuce cups and prawn and noodle salad

Eating is sensory, but it’s the contrast of textures and temperature I find most alluring. Searing-hot prawns marinated in fish sauce, garlic and ginger dance upon a spicy yet cooling nuoc cham-inspired dressing, served with crunchy peanuts on a soft bed of noodles and herbs. In my san choy bau, crisp, cold lettuce leaves embrace piping-hot pork with bold Chinese seasonings. Both dishes invite the kid within us to eat with our fingers: peeling tails and heads off prawns and feeling the juice of san choy bau on our fingers, ready for unashamed licking after every bite.

San choy bau (pictured above)
There are as many ways to spell san choy bau (生菜包), which translates to “lettuce wrap” in Cantonese, as there are to make it. Its popularity in Chinese-Australian restaurants is legendary and it’s a fixture on menus there. Make the extra effort to soak the spring onion garnish and lettuce leaves in ice-cold water, which crisps up the leaves and makes the spring onions go curly.

Prep 25 min
Soak 30 min
Cook 20 min
Makes 12 cups, to serve 6

1 iceberg lettuce
6 spring onions, 4 thinly sliced on the diagonal, the other 2 julienned
Neutral oil (such as sunflower), for cooking
500g pork mince
3 banana shallots (100g), peeled and thinly sliced
100g brown mushrooms, thinly sliced
2 carrots, peeled and julienned
2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
15g (3cm) ginger, peeled and grated
2 tbsp Shaoxing rice wine
2 tbsp light soy sauce
140g water chestnuts, chopped (I use the canned Kingfisher brand)

60ml oyster sauce
½ tbsp caster sugar
½ tbsp toasted sesame oil

To remove the lettuce core, grab the lettuce in your hand and smash it core side down on a work surface. The core should loosen enough to let you wiggle it out. Run the lettuce under cold water to separate the leaves – you’ll need 12 smaller ones for this dish, about the size of your hand, or trim them down.

Fill both a large and a small bowl with ice-cold water and soak the lettuce leaves and julienned spring onions for 30 minutes. Drain, cover with a cloth and keep in the fridge until ready to use.

Heat a tablespoon of oil in a large frying pan or wok on a high heat. Add half the pork and cook, moving it around the pan so it cooks evenly, for about six minutes, until browned all over. Remove and set aside, then wipe out the pan. Add another tablespoon of oil and repeat with the remaining pork.

Wipe out the pan, add another tablespoon of oil and put on a medium-high heat. Add the shallots and mushrooms, and cook, stirring continually, for two minutes. Add the carrots, stir-fry for a minute, then add the garlic and ginger and cook for a minute more.

Add the rice wine and soy sauce, and cook for about two minutes, until the liquid evaporates. Return the pork to the pan with the water chestnuts and thinly sliced spring onions, stir everything together, then add the oyster sauce, sugar and sesame oil, stir to combine and cook until everything is warmed through.

To serve, scoop two dessertspoonfuls of the mixture into each lettuce cup and top with the curly spring onions.

Seared prawns with hot-and-sour salad

Marinating prawns in garlic, ginger and fish sauce was a revelation for me, enhancing the sweet, meatiness of the prawn while caramelising it in the pan. It’s now my go-to marinade whenever I’m craving prawns. It’s an excellent dish for hosting, rewarding preparation with easy, last-minute assembly by searing the prawns and dressing the salad just before serving. Buy good-quality prawns in the shell – both fresh or frozen will work here.

Prep 45 min
Cook 10 min
Serves 6-8

200g ½cm-wide flat rice noodles
Neutral oil (such as sunflower), for cooking and tossing
7 tbsp (105ml) fish sauce
20g ginger, peeled and grated (ie, from a 4cm piece)
8 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
24 sustainably-sourced raw, black tiger prawns (680g unpeeled weight; or raw medium-sized prawns), peeled and deveined, but leaving the heads and tails intact
175g baby corn, halved lengthways
150g mangetouts
2 long red chillies, finely chopped
2 lemongrass, woody stems removed, rest finely chopped
4 banana shallots (130g), peeled and thinly sliced
4 tbsp (60g) caster sugar
4 tbsp lime juice (ie, from 3-4 limes)
6 tbsp (35g) fried shallots, shop-bought or homemade
100g roasted, salted peanuts, roughly chopped
30g bunch Thai basil, picked
30g bunch mint, picked
30g bunch coriander, leaves picked and stems chopped

Soak the rice noodles in boiling water according to the packet instructions, then drain, rinse under cold water and toss with a little oil to prevent them from sticking together.

In a larger bowl, mix a tablespoon of fish sauce, half the ginger and half the crushed garlic. Add the prawns, toss to combine, then set aside to marinate at room temperature while you prepare the other ingredients.

Heat a tablespoon of oil in a large frying pan or wok on a high heat, then add the corn, reduce the heat to medium-high and fry for two minutes, so they begin to char. Add the mangetouts, stir-fry for a minute or two, until they just begin to soften and go a vibrant green, then tip out into a bowl, leave to cool and wipe out the pan.

For the dressing, put the remaining crushed garlic and ginger in a bowl with the chillies, lemongrass, sliced shallots, sugar, lime juice and six tablespoons of fish sauce, stir to combine, then taste and adjust the seasoning, if need be, and set aside.

Put two tablespoons of oil in the pan or wok, set it over a high heat and add half the prawns (you could also cook them on a barbecue hot plate). Cook for two minutes on one side, then, as the prawns curl into a C-shape, turn them over and cook for a further minute on the other side, until they are opaque and pink all over. Remove and wipe out the pan, add another two tablespoons of oil and repeat with the remaining prawns.

To assemble, put the drained noodles on a large platter or wide, shallow bowl. Add the corn, mangetouts, fried shallots, peanuts, herbs and two-thirds of the dressing, and toss to combine. Lay the prawns on top, drizzle over the remaining dressing and serve immediately.