Ever since I started browsing recipes on Pinterest, I’ve noticed something that bothers me—the prominence of so-called “copycat” recipes. For some reason, everyone seems to be obsessed with the idea of bringing home the dishes they’ve enjoyed in a restaurant. And with great frequency, the restaurant they copy is a chain.
How did we get here? I remember a time when restaurants made claims like “as good as Mom used to make,” or “from a three-generations-old recipe.” Does this mean I’m old? When did we make this shift from holding restaurants to standard of homemade foods we remember from childhood—to seeking a fettucine alfredo that’s “just like the Cheesecake Factory?”
Most of the time, chain restaurant menus strike me as calorie- and sodium-laden oversized portions, often indistinguishable in terms of cuisine style. For example, it wouldn’t seem so strange to find a salad on a chain menu with blackened chicken (Cajun), a soy-based dressing (Asian), topped with roasted corn (Tex-Mex) and dried cranberries (um, what?). These are the kind of things that keep me up at night. What is a salad such as that even trying to be?
So when I asked a friend a couple of years ago for her preference for a girls’ lunch date, I admit that I cringed at her response—“How about P.F. Chang’s?”
A chain? Ugh. It’s my own fault, but my friend’s workplace isn’t near to many independent spots, so I agreed, and as luck would have it, I’m glad I went. Not because the food was exceptional (it was fine), but because I (finally) became inspired to delve into cooking the mouthwatering world of Asian food. For years, I loved the flavors but felt intimidated by this particular cuisine, with all of its complex special sauces and high-temperature cooking techniques. So how did a single meal at an Asian chain restaurant open my culinary mind?
Two words. Lettuce wraps.
I loved the idea of the lettuce wraps—crunchy fresh lettuce wrapped up around a small mound of spicy sauced chicken with flash-fried rice noodles on the side. It seemed fresh and healthy, and the server was happy to bring me a side of their “ring of fire” sauce, which is pretty much the hottest thing you’d ever imagine ingesting. Man, that stuff was good. But later in the day, after my fourth glass of water, I remembered why I steer clear of the chains. My food was really, really salty. After a quick online lookup, I discovered that my lunch, considered an appetizer on the Chang’s menu, had 1,820 mg of sodium. In one appetizer.
That sent me off in search of a better way. I went to the market and discovered that nearly every Asian sauce is available in a reduced sodium version, so those were the ones I brought home (after inspecting the label ingredients for any other deal breakers, of course). I tasted each one, experimented with flavor combinations and figured out some other ways to add texture and flavor. And today, I present my very own copycat recipe—for chicken lettuce wraps. My version is decidedly lower in sodium, swaps out boring iceberg leaves in favor of crunchy romaine, with addition of sweet red bell pepper (did you know they are higher in vitamin C than oranges?), and nutty brown rice rather than bland, deep-fried rice noodles.
So maybe this is the reason for all the copycats on Pinterest. Perhaps other amateur chefs have the same idea—to enjoy the flavor they’ve had in other places, but with more control over the ingredients, the fat and the sodium. It also has occurred to me that because I grew up in a small community with no chain restaurants at all, I do not have any history of food memories tied to them, as others probably do. In the end, I learned something and found a new favorite to make at home.
These wraps are delicious, the heat is adjustable (either way) to taste, and my husband and I enjoy them so much, that lettuce wraps are now in our regular menu rotation. All because of lunch at a chain restaurant. If you’ve been nervous to try an Asian recipe at home, allow me to introduce you to a few of the key ingredients:
What is in hoisin sauce?
Hoisin sauce is a sweet, sticky sauce, made from fermented soy beans and garlic, and flavored with aromatic spices such as fennel, cinnamon and star anise. It is very common in Chinese and Thai dishes, sometimes used as a cooking ingredient but also sometimes as a dipping sauce. Think of it as an Eastern-world barbecue sauce. It’s delicious!
What is tamari?
Tamari is a wheat-free alternative to traditional soy sauce. The organic, low-sodium versions are often significantly lower than the low-sodium soy sauces, but the flavor is nearly identical. Because it’s wheat-free, it’s suitable for gluten-free diets—but for this recipe, be sure to check every other ingredient label for hidden sources of gluten if this is a concern.
What is sriracha?
Sriracha is an Asian-style condiment, made from aged hot peppers, vinegar, salt and a bit of sugar. It adds plenty of heat to this recipe but is balanced with the tang of the vinegar. Adjust this one to suit your taste but consider using at least 1 teaspoon to get the chili flavor that makes this dish special.
What’s different about chili-garlic sauce?
Chili-garlic sauce is similar in flavor to sriracha, but it’s a chunkier sauce that adds texture and a lot of savory heat, with underlying notes of garlic and not a lot of salt. If you love spicy food, double it (as I often do); if you aren’t into as much heat, use half or skip it altogether.
Anybody besides me getting hungry?
1 lb. lean ground chicken* (see notes for vegan option)
1 medium onion, chopped
1 small red bell pepper, chopped
3 cloves fresh garlic, minced
1-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and finely minced
1/2 can sliced water chestnuts, drained and diced small*
4 Tbsp. hoisin sauce (low sodium)
2 Tbsp. rice wine vinegar (not the “seasoned” variety, which has extra salt)
2 Tbsp. low sodium soy sauce (or tamari, which is even lower)
1 Tbsp. sriracha sauce
1 Tbsp. chili-garlic sauce
2 tsp. toasted sesame oil*
Fresh romaine heart, trimmed and prepped*
Hot cooked brown jasmine rice
3 scallions (green onions), trimmed and thinly sliced
Sesame seeds (optional), sprinkled on for serving
Want to make this vegan? Swap the chicken for firm, cubed tofu (patted very dry) and a handful of cashews. Delicious!
In case you’re wondering, it’s not accidental that salt is not listed in the ingredients. Part of the goal with this recipe is reduction of the high sodium in the original dish. The sauces have enough to cover it.
Most supermarkets sell water chestnuts in their Asian section, and sometimes they are available in a diced form, but the pieces are almost as large as sugar cubes. I prefer the slices, because it’s easier to cut the slices into a smaller dice.
A little bit of toasted sesame oil goes a long way, so don’t be tempted to use more of this. Additionally, you don’t want to cook in this pungent oil because its low smoke point will cause it to scorch.
To prep the romaine heart, trim the stem end and rinse the individual leaves under cold running water. Drain them of excess water, then wrap them up in paper towels and place the bundle in the fridge until it’s time to serve. The chilly air will keep them crisp, and the towels will absorb lingering moisture.
Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Add canola oil, then brown the ground chicken together with the garlic and fresh ginger. Add the chopped yellow onions and red bell pepper and sauté until the vegetables are soft. Add the chopped water chestnuts and heat through.
In a measuring cup with a pour spout, combine the hoisin sauce, soy or tamari, sriracha, chili-garlic sauce and rice wine vinegar. Whisk to combine.
Pour the sauce combination over the chicken and stir to coat evenly. Just before serving, drizzle in the toasted sesame oil and stir to combine.
You could probably pre-fill the lettuce leaves with the chicken mixture for serving, but we enjoy the DIY aspect of serving it at the table. Arrange the lettuce leaves on a plate, with the brown rice in one bowl and the meat mixture in another, sprinkled with sliced scallions and sesame seeds.
Want to print this recipe?
What restaurant recipes have you copied (or wanted to)? Leave me a comment, and maybe we can tackle it together!