Chinese-Chicken Lettuce Cups

Chinese Chicken Lettuce Cups Recipe

Chinese cooks don’t use a lot of raw vegetables, but instead prefer to stir-fry or braise them. There are a few exceptions, however, and in Hong Kong, cooks fill crisp iceberg lettuce leaves with savory minced pigeon meat. Since we have no intention of domesticating the pigeons outside our New York City apartment window, we’ve substituted chicken in this recipe, which tastes equally delicious. Chuck all the filling ingredients in a food processor rather than chop them by hand if you’re in a hurry, processing the veggies first and then the chicken, but leave larger chunks of mushrooms and water chestnuts to add texture. Don’t forget the fresh cilantro leaves heaped on top of the assembled cups.–Nate and Mary Kate Tate

LC Better Than You'd Remembered Note

You know how sometimes you try to recreate a restaurant classic at home and it doesn’t work? And you’re left only with bittersweet memories and dashed dreams? This isn’t one of those times. We were grinning like idiots as we crammed these delicate lettuce cups into our mouths. We found no room for improvement, save perhaps a dash of Sriracha or other hot sauce for those who like things a little less than tame. We can also see taking these little lovelies to work with us for lunch on those days when we really need something to look forward to all morning.

Chinese Chicken Lettuce Cups Recipe

  • Quick Glance
  • 30 M
  • 30 M
  • Serves 4 to 6

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons light soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon hoisin sauce
  • 2 tablespoons unseasoned rice vinegar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar
  • 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 2 teaspoons finely chopped ginger root
  • 1/3 cup finely chopped red onion
  • 1/2 cup whole or sliced canned water chestnuts, finely chopped
  • 1 cup canned mushrooms, finely chopped (optional)
  • 1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts, finely chopped
  • 8 to 12 inner leaves butter lettuce or iceberg lettuce, chilled
  • Handful fresh cilantro leaves, coarsely chopped
  • 1/4 cup unsalted roasted cashews or peanuts, coarsely chopped

Directions

  • 1. Combine the soy sauce, hoisin sauce, vinegar, salt, and sugar in a small bowl and stir until the sugar dissolves.
  • 2. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a wok over medium-high heat. Stir-fry the garlic and ginger for 10 seconds. Add the onion, water chestnuts, and mushrooms, if using, and stir-fry for 2 minutes. Transfer to a plate.
  • 3. Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons oil in the wok over medium-high heat. Carefully tilt the wok to swirl the oil and coat the surface. Add the chicken and cook until no trace of pink remains, about 1 minute. Return the cooked vegetable mixture to the wok and decrease the heat to medium-low. Give the sauce mixture a quick stir to recombine, then add it to the wok. Cook, stirring, until the sauce is warm and the chicken is cooked through, about 1 minute.
  • 4. Spoon the filling in equal amounts into the lettuce cups. Top each lettuce cup with a sprinkle of cilantro and cashews or peanuts. Serve warm with the instructions that this is a cup and not necessarily a wrap, so simply gather the bundle up with your fingertips or cup it in your palm and take a bite.
Hungry for more? Chow down on these:

Testers Choice

Testers Choice
Testers Choice
Natalie Reebel

May 27, 2013

These lettuce cups were so good. The flavors were fantastic. There was just enough sweet to balance the soy sauce. I couldn’t even tell it was “light” soy sauce. The cashews gave these lovely cups just the right touch of crunch. I chose to use fresh shiitake mushrooms and to mince the chicken myself, and I was pleased to find this didn’t take long at all, although I’m looking forward to trying the food processor method next time. However, I’d be inclined to mince the mushroom filling separate from the chicken so I could cook them separately, as the recipe states. This is a fun recipe with excellent flavor that my entire family enjoyed.

Testers Choice
Joan Osborne

May 27, 2013

As my daughter said, “these were awesome.” I've never had lettuce cups at a restaurant, but I've always meant to try them. Once you prep all your ingredients, it's a breeze to put together. After we ate our first one my daughter suggested we add a few drops of Sriracha sauce and we enjoyed them that way, too. In fact, my daughter said she liked them better with the Sriracha. They’re a bit messy to eat, but so worth it. We minced everything with a knife instead of using the food processor, and I liked the texture this way. The cold, crisp lettuce was a perfect bed for the hot, cooked filling and the crunchy cashews. I couldn't find unsalted cashews so I got lightly salted instead. I don't have a wok but my trusty cast-iron skillet worked perfectly. I know we'll be eating these again. We might add bean sprouts next time.

Testers Choice
Kim Venglar

May 27, 2013

This recipe is amazing. The one thing I cannot stress enough is to have everything prepared and ready to go. This is the most important step in the whole recipe, because you don’t have time to prep anything during the cooking process. I didn’t use the mushrooms when I made this recipe. I had trouble using the iceberg lettuce as a wrap. It’s too crisp to actually wrap, so the first one I instead used as a bowl. It had a very nice crisp texture to add to the flavor of the chicken and crunch of the cashews. For the second wrap I made I used butter lettuce, which in my opinion should be the lettuce of choice when making lettuce wraps. It was perfect and made a wrap that was much easier to eat. I served this with some cilantro lime rice and homemade pot stickers. I added some rice in the lettuce wrap along with the chicken, cilantro, and cashews, and it was great. I believe the water chestnuts need to be diced instead of minced since they tend to get lost in the recipe.

Testers Choice
Linda Linden

May 27, 2013

These Chinese lettuce cups were quite easy to make given a little preparation beforehand. I chopped all the ingredients before I started cooking, as I knew the 10-second garlic and ginger sauté wouldn’t give me time to chop the onion and water chestnuts. My husband and I ate it as an entrée. I’m guessing it’d probably serve 4. I’d like to add some hot sauce or a dipping sauce next time—maybe some Sriracha or a peanut sauce.

Testers Choice
Linda B.

May 27, 2013

Yum! Who knew it was so easy to make the lettuce wraps you get in restaurants? This recipe is very tasty and quite easy. I left out the canned mushrooms, but next time I make it I’ll probably use fresh mushrooms. The water chestnuts added a nice crunch.

Testers Choice
Trudy Ngo-Brown

May 27, 2013

This all came together so quickly and made for a flavorful, light dinner. I substituted fresh baby ’bella mushrooms for the canned ones, but I used the other ingredients as written. Next time, I’ll also make sure to add diced cucumber and radish—maybe daikon—to have some more crunch.

Testers Choice
Carrie S.

May 27, 2013

Iceberg lettuce is easy to dismiss when it’s in a salad, as it often seems like filler with no value, so we rarely have this type of lettuce in the crisper drawer. But in this recipe, the iceberg pairs so well with the chicken filling that it’s essential. The prep work takes more time than the actual cooking, and I recommend getting the lettuce prepped first so it can chill in the fridge and get very crisp. I wondered if using chicken breast would make for a dry filling, but it remained moist (probably because the cooking is so quick). I used a nonstick skillet and I think I could’ve even used less oil than what the recipe called for. I’ll add some heat to the chicken next time. Looks like iceberg lettuce will be welcome in the fridge again!

Testers Choice
Bette Fraser

May 27, 2013

This was a quick, delicious Chinese version of squab in lettuce cups, but with chicken. I found that it needed a bit of zing, so we each added some Sriracha to our individual cups at the table. Probably the most difficult part of the recipe was to separate the iceberg leaves, as they tend to grow together. Since I don’t care for cashews, I used peanuts with success. Anyone else have a concern about water chestnuts coming from China? Just wondering….

Comments
Comments
  1. Stu Borken says:

    This dish was brought to the United States by Cecilia Chang, the mother of the chef and namesake for the little Chinese restaurant chain, P.F. Chang’s. Every time you enjoy this dish, think of this marvelous and gracious 93-year-old lady. I know I do. In the 1980s, while dining at her restaurant, The Mandarin, she offered me a copy of her biography and signed it, and, inside is her original recipe for this minced squab in lettuce wrap. I have made it many times and will again for a gourmet cooking club in just a couple weeks. Below is a short article about her winning the JBF award this year.

    Cecilia Chiang Wins James Beard Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award
    Awards
    by Tina Nguyen 5:31 pm, January 29th

    Recognizing her enormous contribution to American cuisine, the James Beard Foundation recently awarded its Lifetime Achievement Award to Cecilia Chiang, the first to introduce authentic Chinese food to the American restaurant scene. Eater reports that Chiang will be honored at the 2013 James Beard Awards in May, and given her incredible accomplishments — elevating Chinese food beyond takeout and pu-pu platters, in short — she’s more than deserving of the award.

    During a 1960s visit to the US that eventually turned into a move, Chiang found herself in possession of a Chinese restaurant in San Francisco. After multiple setbacks, The Mandarin eventually built a huge following, particularly among industry giants like Julia Child, Alice Waters, Wolfgang Puck, and James Beard himself (who would eventually become Chiang’s close friend). As a JBF press release noted, Chiang was the first to serve, without hesitation, a “full-flavored Northern Chinese menu that initially included more than 200 dishes, then-novelties such as hot-and-sour soup, pot stickers, Peking duck, sizzling rice soup, and delicate shredded abalone with bean sprouts.” (And, minced squab in lettuce cups, which morphed into minced chicken in lettuce wrap).

    • Renee Schettler Rossi says:

      Stu, many thanks for sharing these insights and history. Greatly appreciate it. Thanks, too, for being so thoughtful as to send us the recipe that appears in Ms. Chang’s biography, which we appreciate even more!

      Minced Squab in Lettuce Cups
      Cecillia Sun Yun Chiang of The Mandarine, San Francisco

      1/4 pound bean thread noodles, fun see, fried quickly
      Vegetable oil for frying noodles (very hot 400 degrees)
      1 tablespoon Chinese rice wine or dry sherry
      Pinch white pepper
      1 whole head soft leaf lettuce, like Bibb or butter
      6 large squab or 2 Rock Cornish game hens, with skins
      12 large shiitake mushrooms (fresh or dried and soaked), minced
      1 slice ginger root (quarter size, 1/4″ thick) minced
      1 cup water chestnuts, minced
      3 tablespoons Smithfield ham, turkey ham, or prosciutto, minced
      2 scallions (green and white parts) cut into rings
      Pinch of white pepper
      1 tablespoon oyster sauce
      1 tablespoon mushroom soy sauce
      1/2 teaspoon sugar
      1/2 teaspoon toasted sesame seed oil
      1 teaspoon cornstarch + water

      Instructions: Fry the rice noodles in the hot oil. They puff up suddenly, so test a couple strands first to test the temperature of the oil and to make sure they stay white and not brown. If you have never made fun see noodles, you must practice or you will have a disaster on your hands. When I say they puff up quickly in the hot oil, I mean in about 2 to 4 seconds, and then you must take them out with a strainer—use a chinese one called a spider (it’s called that because of the way the stainer is shaped like a web). Drain the noodles and place them on a platter on which you will place the finished filling. You will want to press them down just a little to make a flatter area for the filling to sit upon.

      Choose a large, loosely packed head of lettuce so that it will be easier to peel the leaves off without tearing them. Remove the outer leaves and place them on the platter around the noodles.

      Bone the poultry and mince the meat and the skin.

      The proportion of ingredients should be: 4 parts poultry, 3 parts mushrooms, 3 parts water chestnuts. Heat 1/4 cup vegetable oil in a wok over high heat, making sure that the entire lower cooking surface is covered with a film of oil. Add the squab and minced scallions and stir-fry briefly. Then add the mushrooms, ginger, water chestnuts, and ham and stir-fry briefly. Continuing to stir-fry, add all the remaining ingredients and cook just long enough to blend and cook them through. Serve on the fried noodles with the lettuce leaves on the side.

      To serve, just place the minced stir-fried mixture inside a lettuce and fold like you would a taco. Serve with hoisen sauce or soy sauce or a mixture of soy, ginger and hoisen.

      Background Notes from Stu Borken: I made up the time of 4 hours. It just take a long time to do everything. Also, the serving size of 4 was just a guess, depends on the appetites of the people and the size of the lettuce leaves.

      • ruthie says:

        Yes! That’s what was missing, the noodles. And the dried shiitakes — canned or fresh mushrooms just don’t have the same earthiness or body. It’s easiest to do the noodles in batches, right in the spider — just dip into the oil and be ready to pull it back out in seconds. Takes a few batches, but no disasters.

        Thanks to Stu for providing the recipe and thanks for posting this. It’s more the classic style of stir fry I grew up with. I do very little stir fry these days, and seeing this reminds me how much I miss it. I used to teach Chinese cooking, and now I’ve forgotten so much. I need to get out the old class handouts and get back to those marvelous flavors. ;)

        And although I can be a bit hidebound with Chinese cooking, you should really give this a try in radicchio, heavy on the Hoisin and green onions. /;)

        • David Leite says:

          Hidebound? You, ruthie? I think not. I believe that radicchio–although not traditional–would make a great addition to this recipe. And I didn’t know taught Chinese cooking. I learn so much about my readers in these comments!

  2. Bianca says:

    Super delicious and EASY! I, too, used fresh mushrooms. We also chose to go with baby romaine leaves which gave more of a boat/taco shape and very easy to eat from. Lastly we topped them with a nice asian cabbage slaw. Really great. Thanks!

Have something to say?

Then tell us. Have a picture you'd like to add to your comment? Send it along. Covet one of those spiffy pictures of yourself to go along with your comment? Get a free Gravatar. And as always, please take a gander at our comment policy before posting.

*

Daily Subscription

Enter your email address and get all of our updates sent to your inbox the moment they're posted. Be the first on your block to be in the know.

Preview daily e-mail

Weekly Subscription

Hate tons of emails? Do you prefer info delivered in a neat, easy-to-digest (pun intended) form? Then enter your email address for our weekly newsletter.

Preview weekly e-mail