These lettuce wraps with chicken are quick and easy to make. If you’re on a low carb diet, you could cook up a big batch of miso chicken on Sunday night to keep in the fridge. Reheat, wrap with lettuce leaves, and that’s it– Monday’s lunch is ready!
Asian-style Lettuce Wraps
In Japan and Korea, people have been eating lettuce wraps long before low carb diets became popular in the West.
My introduction to lettuce wraps must have been at Tonchang, a Korean barbecue restaurant in Shin-Ookubo, Tokyo’s Koreatown.
Thick strips of fatty pork belly, called samgyeopsal, are grilled right in front of you at your table.
After the long strips are cut into bite-sized pieces with kitchen scissors, you wrap the pork inside a big, fresh leave of lettuce. Add in kimchi, slices of garlic, and maybe some spicy chili miso sauce. Then, using your hands, you can dip it in sesame oil with black pepper.
I first discovered the Japanese version of wraps at a “secret restaurant” tucked around the corner of a secluded side street in my old neighborhood, Omotesando. I took my girlfriend there on a dinner date specifically to eat the miso pork cabbage wraps with saké.
If this is all new to you, boy, are you in for a treat…
Miso-Flavored Minced Chicken
The meat in these lettuce wraps is called nikumiso in Japanese. Typically, pork is more commonly used. I switched to chicken because I’m trying to limit the number of meals I eat with red meat (climate change).
I won’t lie, the original pork version is just as good if not better. I’ll still eat it on occasion.
This is a great recipe to try with leftover ground chicken, pork, or even turkey after Thanksgiving.
It’s what you’ll want the day after Thanksgiving:
a light meal that’s simple to prepare and won’t make a big mess in the kitchen.
Instead of making turkey sandwiches, why not try out some Japanese finger food?
(You’ll have the recipe perfected in time for watching the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics.)
The ABCs of Japanese Cooking
Traditional recipes for nikumiso usually call for a combination of saké, sugar, and/or mirin, which also adds sweetness.
In Japanese, there’s a mnemonic to remember the order of adding seasonings:
Sa is for satou, sugar. Shi for shio, salt. Su is vinegar. Se for shoyu, soy sauce (spelled seuyu in old Japanese). And so is the so in miso.
In home kitchens and restaurants in Tokyo, sugar or mirin is usually added when making any typical Japanese dish or sauces like teriyaki.
Cuisine in Kyoto is known for lighter, more subtle flavors. They tend to avoid adding sugar.
In my Tokyo kitchen, I leave out the sugar and mirin for health’s sake, without sacrificing too much taste.
During the work week, I tend not add saké as well, so not to be tempted to drink what’s leftover after the one splash that goes into the fry pan.
Cooking with Japanese Ingredients
The first time I tried making this recipe, I added too much miso. While I thought that I was erring on the side of adding too little, I was wrong.
When I tasted the meat, it was already too salty, which meant that I didn’t want to add any soy sauce.
Luckily, I forgot to add soy sauce before the miso: sa-shi-su-se-so
I also wanted to experiment with leaving out the saké to cut out sugar and carbs. Just like cooking with wine, the saké will open up the flavors. I wanted to taste the difference firsthand if I left out the saké.
For a first attempt, it wasn’t bad.
“The Golden Ratio” of Japanese Cuisine
On my second try, I cut the amount of miso and added soy sauce and one clove of garlic. It’s such a simple dish, but these small adjustments made all the difference. It turned my miso chicken from “it’s too salty but ok” into “wow, that’s really good.”
Japanese cooking uses a simple mixture of basic ingredients in the right proportions. Many of the Japanese dishes, soups, and sauces that you love contain the same combination of ingredients: dashi broth, soy sauce, and mirin.
The secret is getting the ratio just right.
In Japanese, they say aji no ogonhi, “the Golden Ratio” of Japanese cooking.
If you’re a newbie to cooking with Japanese ingredients, I recommend that you measure out your seasonings carefully to achieve that perfect balance. Once you hit that just-right combination of flavor, with practice you’ll be able to use the golden ratio intuitively like a real Japanese chef.
To be honest, I’m not there yet. Remember, I’m from Wisconsin, the “Cheese State”. We’re learning this together!
Where to Buy Miso and Your Health
If you are new to cooking with miso, I recommend buying the smallest tub you can find.
I found a small tub of organic Hikari brand miso at a Natural Lawson’s convenience store in Tokyo. Knowing that if I bought the regular family-size miso, it would sit in my refrigerator until months past the expiration date.
Unless you make miso soup every day for a Japanese family of five, you might want to do the same.
Even if you don’t live in Japan, you should be able to find miso at your local Japanese or Asian grocery store.
I also just checked on amazon.com… I found organic Hikari red miso. Red miso is saltier than white or awase (mixed) miso so you’ll want to be careful to not add too much.
Especially for those of you who have a gluten intolerance, it’s also important to note that some varieties of miso are made with wheat, barley, and rye.
Earlier today I read a headline that said “miso is 2019’s new superfood”.
Despite its high salt content, miso is really nutritious. Made from fermented soybeans and grains, it contains millions of beneficial bacteria for your gut.
And it adds a wonderful, rich flavor to food. Miso a key ingredient in so many Japanese recipes that I know you’d love.
Just trust me on this one: buy the small size.
How to make Lettuce Wraps with Chicken – Miso
Lettuce Wraps with Chicken (Miso-Flavored)
- 3/4 cup Japanese sweet potato cubed
- 1 onion medium size
- 1/2 cup lotus root (renkon) cubed
- 1/3 red pepper finely chopped
- 1 knob fresh ginger grated
- 2 cloves garlic finely chopped
- 2 1/2 tsp sesame oil
- 1 tsp soy sauce or gluten-free alternative
- 2 tsp miso
- 1/2 cup water
- 2 tbsp sake optional
- fresh lettuce leaves
- perilla leaves (shiso) thinly sliced to garnish
Prep (Sweet Potato)
Cut Japanese sweet potato into approximately 3/4 inch (2 cm) slices.
Fill small sauce pan halfway with water and add slices of sweet potato. Turn stove on high; bring water to a boil.
Reduce heat if water begins to boil over.
After 4-5 minutes, poke sweet potato slices with fork.
Once fork pokes through the sweet potato easily, remove from water with a strainer. Set aside.
Later, when sweet potato has cooled, cut into small cubes.
Prep (Vegetables and Minced Chicken)
Remove peel and chop onion (see size in photo) and finely chop garlic.
Peel and finely grate ginger.
Peel and chop lotus root into 1 cm wide slices and then into small cubes.
Finely chop red pepper.
Thinly slice perilla (shiso) leaves to garnish.
Spoon miso into a small dish and mix with water.
Turn stove on. Add sesame oil to pan on low heat.
Add chopped onion to fry pan. Stir occasionally.
Once the onion begins to soften, add finely chopped garlic to the fry pan.
Once garlic begins to turn golden brown (1- 2 minutes), add chopped lotus root and finely chopped red pepper.
Once all the added vegetables have softened (another 1 - 2 minutes), add finely grated ginger and minced chicken.
Continue to cook on low heat, stirring occasionally, until the chicken is fully cooked.
Finally, add the cubes of sweet potato and stir.
Add soy sauce (or gluten-free alternative) to the fry pan. Stir.
And then add the mix of miso and water. Stir in.
Add sake (optional). Stir.
Continue to cook. Once most of the liquid has boiled off, turn off heat.
Serve in a bowl (or directly onto the lettuce).
Garnish and Dipping Sauce (Optional)
Scoop nikumiso on top of each lettuce leaf.
Garnish with sliced perilla (shiso).
Mix rice wine vinegar and freshly ground black pepper to make a dipping sauce.
Miso: I used organic Hikari brand koji miso.
Vegetables: if you do not have access to lotus root or Japanese sweet potato, you can substitute any vegetable that you would like: zucchini, green onion, carrot, or mushroom.
If you are on a low carb diet, you may want to substitute these starchy vegetables (lotus root and sweet potato) out for lower carb options.
Soy sauce: to make this recipe gluten-free, use gluten-free soy sauce, gluten-free tamari, coconut aminos, or liquid aminos.