Trips home can be tough, even if you only take into consideration the jet lag. First, you hop on a plane, and travel back in time, so that in one day, you manage to squeeze in 36 hours. That first night, sleeping is easy, especially if you crossed the ocean in coach, crammed between two people, one of whom is drooling (*ahem* Walker).

But the movies definitely help. When we’re in China, we see a lot of movies, but what we see is very dependent on what our little shop of pirated dvds stocks. It’s got a really odd selection most of the time – imagine My Fair Lady next to Boondock Saints. So we almost never know what’s playing or has just opened.

After seven movies, you’re pretty sure you never want to watch a movie again. That and your butt has atrophied. And you’re incredibly hungry because you’re boycotting airplane food.

And just when you think you’ll never get to stand up again, you arrive and you start overcoming the jet lag and doing all the things you said you’d missed. Spending time with friends and family, enjoying all the green space, hitting up Bojangles for sweet tea and biscuits, and even watching American commercials. Seriously, even though you’ve probably all got TiVo, you might want to appreciate the cleverness of some of those ads. What we have in China are the weirdest Philippino ads that don’t quite make sense or RJ, the self proclaimed entertainment and music magnate. Appreciate the little things, people, or if you’re having a bad day, send me a note with your address so I can send you a dvd of RJ’s best commercials (“Do you want to be in a band? Learn Rock, Learn Guitar, Learn Stage Presence, Learn Rock and Roll!”) and you can watch it on repeat, then turn it off, and your day will start feeling better immediately.

Even though there were countless things we’d missed, we also found ourselves missing things about China. No, not the public spitting or the crowds, but we did miss the food.

Chinese food in the States is usually just food from Hong Kong that’s been Americanized – adding sugar and salt with fewer vegetables. And granted, even in the poorest regions of China, where meat is an extreme luxury, vegetarian Chinese food is incredibly rare. If you ask for a vegetarian dish here, it will come out with bits of ground pork sprinkled over the veggies or stir fried in oyster sauce, assuming it didn’t come out with a giant steamed fish on top of it. Adding meat is thought of as generous, but there are some days that I want the flavors of Chinese food but I just don’t feel like eating meat.

If this July 4th weekend you have a big barbeque planned, but you’re hoping to skip the hot dog for something a little less heavy, give these a shot. They’ve got all the flavor of some of my favorite Shanghai dishes, but there’s one thing missing – the meat. Plus it’s wrapped up in lettuce instead of a giant bun. The lack of buns might make you feel better about eating three of them.

Mushroom Lettuce Wraps
Inspiration from here
Yields 4 servings


For the Sauce:

2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
1 tablespoon hoisin sauce
1 teaspoon cornstarch

For the filling:

12 medium to large Chinese mushrooms, chopped into 1 cm cubes
1/2 pound pressed tofu, chopped, or ground pork (here I’ve used pork, but I’ve done tofu before as well with great success)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 small onion, chopped
3-5 cloves of garlic, to your taste
Pickled ginger, minced, about one tablespoon*
Small bunch Chinese celery**, sliced
Big bunch of cilantro, minced
Chives, sliced
1 carrot, shredded with a zester, or julienned
1 small daikon radish, shredded with a zester
2-3 tablespoons lightly toasted pine nuts
1 teaspoon dark sesame oil
8-10 whole lettuce leaves – Bibb, Boston, or Iceberg

1. In a small bowl, mix together the soy sauce, vinegar, and hoisin sauce. In another small bowl, stir together the cornstarch with 1 tablespoon water so that there are no lumps. Set bowls aside.

2. Heat a wok over a medium high flame. Add the vegetable oil, and when it starts to shimmer, the onion and garlic. Saute until the onion is beginning to turn translucent. Add either pork or tofu, and let it brown up.

3. Add the pickled ginger, celery, scallions, cilantro and mushrooms. Stir-fry until the mushrooms have softened and the mixture is fragrant.  Add soy sauce mixture and stir for 20 seconds. Add cornstarch mixture and stir until thickened, about 30 seconds.

4. Add sesame oil and pine nuts and toss.

5. To serve, peel off a few leaves of lettuce and place them on a plate, so that they are shaped like little bowls. Fill with about 3 tablespoons of the mushroom filling, and top with the shredded carrot and daikon. Roll up leaf and eat with your fingers.

*You could buy this or save it from left over sushi I guess, but it’s just as easy to make it and keep in your fridge. It’s a great way to use up some left over ginger that’s going bad in the back of your fridge too. Just make a solution of six parts rice wine vinegar, six parts sugar, to one part salt, bring to a boil, and add in thin rounds of sliced ginger. Store in an airtight container in the fridge until ready to use. If you are using young ginger, it will turn itself pink in about a week. Older ginger will be a translucent white, though the taste is largely the same (most commercial pickled gingers have dyes added to artificially color the product – check labels if that bothers you).

**Chinese celery is different. It just is. If you’ve never seen it, its much thinner than normal celery, and infinitely more fragrant. There are also fewer stringy bits. If you can’t find it or happen to have normal celery instead, never fear. Take that normal celery, and peel most of the strings off with a peeler. Slice the celery long ways first, then across for a finer dice. You’ll want to up the cilantro in the recipe too to compensate.

Critic’s Comments

Walker – It was fresh, it was clean, it was… like perfect size for optimum snacking. It was like mini-pitas but cleaner.

These were a great summer meal. They didn’t feel heavy like a sandwich would but was packed with flavor. This dish is a recurring one at our house because though we love Chinese food, a lot of the local restaurants add so much oil or msg that we leave feeling slightly gross. This is a much healthier take on the same tastes we love, and you can eat it with your hands. That makes everything tastes better.