Thai Sweet and Sour Prawn Lettuce Cups
Updated: Sep 7, 2021
The date for my practice exam is fast approaching and I continue to practice the recipes I’ve developed for my final tasting exam. One of the dishes I’ve been working on is a take on a Thai dish called Nam prik kung siap haeng (photo below). It falls in the dip category of Thai cuisine, but it’s not actually dip-able. It’s a dish that Thais eat like a dip, which means it’s accompanied by lots of raw and cooked vegetables and sometimes crunchy fried things. This particular dish consists of a thick syrupy sweet, sour and salty sauce, glazed over crunchy deep fried garlic, shallots, chilies and large dried shrimp. It’s spicy, fishy and intense, and it’s fantastic with the crunchy vegetables it's served beside. The photo below shows the dip done two ways. One "wet" version with shrimp paste and fish sauce, and one "dry" version with only fish sauce as the salting agent.
I chose to riff on this dish for my final exam menu because I really like the way this dish does sweet and sour. Most sweet and sour recipes I see rely on white sugar and white vinegar to get that tangy balance, but this dish uses tamarind paste and palm sugar. The tamarind is less sharp than vinegar and the palm sugar is more interesting and aromatic and a bit less processed than white sugar, so it just kind of speaks to me. It’s a much more complex sweet and sour in that the method calls to caramelize the palm sugar with fish sauce, so there are umami and burnt sugar notes that aren’t present in the typical cherry red sweet and sour sauce of panda express. :-)
I wanted to take this approach of sweet and sour and put my spin on it. I wanted to make it a little less fishy, and diversify the texture a bit. So I made a few tweaks and tested it out on a group of Thai and Western friends. I'm happy to report that it was very well received!
My changes were pretty simple. I’d take out the dried shrimp and replace them with fresh prawn and I’d remove the shrimp paste. Then I’d change the dish to a lettuce cup structure (but using Thai white pepper leaves), which felt necessary because of the fresh prawn and also added reference another Thai dish called Miang Kham, which is a really fun dish of lots of aromatic crunchy things wrapped up in white pepper leaves. Next I added some threads of kaffir lime leaves and fresh coriander to elevate the aroma. Crunchy cucumber and Thai eggplants are added to add more crunch and mellow out the spice. Depending on the type and quantity of chili you use, you can make this as spicy as you like. My first version (last photo) was REALLY spicy, which my Thai friends really appreciated.
This dish is a very fun finger food dish that is perfect for a light meal eaten al fresco with a loved one. Recipe below!
Sweet and Sour Prawn Lettuce Cups Recipe
Serves 2 as an entrée, 4 as a side
½ pound fresh prawn (shelled and heads removed)
5-10 dried bird’s eye chili (to taste based on your spice level)
8 large garlic cloves
8 pearl onions (sub one shallot)
cooking oil for deep frying (reserve some to stir fry)
1/3 cup tamarind paste (also called tamarind concentrate)
2 tablespoon Thai fish sauce
1/4 cup palm sugar (sub. coconut sugar or agave syrup)
Juice of 1 lime
2 kaffir lime leaves (sub. lime zest), sliced to threads