Thai Chicken Lettuce Cups

I’m so excited to be teaming up with my friends at Half Baked Cooks to bring you this guest post. I had a lot of fun deciding on what to make, making it, and photographing it for you. Thank you for having me, Hallie and Genny!

Some of you may not know this, but the Pacific Northwest has a sizable Southeast Asian population. In fact, besides English and Spanish, Vietnamese is the most commonly spoken language in Washington State. People from Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam have brought with them the flavors and ingredients of their countries and integrated them into Pacific Northwest cuisine. Thai and Vietnamese food is especially popular here. There are probably as many Pho restaurants as there are coffee shops. And why do they all have to have such cheesy names like It’s Pho You and Pho Ever and even What the Pho? It baffles me. Anyway. I decided to bring you a Thai-and-Vietnamese-inspired recipe today as a nod to the presence of those cultures here.

We’re starting with cabbage cups. I like to use cabbage because it’s more flavorful, sturdy, and crunchy than lettuce. Though you could also use the inner leaves of a head of iceberg or butter lettuce as well. It’s up to you. Inside these cups is going to be either tempeh or chicken.


Tempeh (pronounced temp-ay) is a fermented soy product from Indonesia. It’s tofu’s cousin, yet they are really two very different products. Tempeh is made from whole soy beans, while tofu is made from coagulated soy milk. Tempeh has a much firmer texture and a much milder flavor. If you’re on the fence about tofu, or even know you dislike it, give tempeh a chance. It’s really quite different from tofu. It is quite popular here in the ultra vegan-friendly Pacific Northwest. In fact, Portland and Seattle both made PETA’s list of the top 10 vegan-friendly cities. Seattle’s University District has even been called one of the most vegan-friendly neighborhoods in North America.  So I couldn’t very well make you a recipe without a vegan option, could I?


These l̶e̶t̶t̶u̶c̶e̶ cabbage cups rock. They are absolutely chock-full of Asian flavors. And while it seems like they are a lot of work, all the steps go pretty quickly and none of them are difficult. At the end of it all, you’ll have the perfect light dinner or lunch to share with friends as our warm days come to a close.

Thai/Vietnamese Chicken/Tempeh Lettuce/Cabbage Cups


Notes: Fish sauce is Southeast Asia’s version of soy sauce. It adds a salty/umami flavor to a dish. It smells strong, but the end sauce will not taste fishy; just deep and complex. Sambal oelek is an Asian chili sauce that is quite spicy. A little goes a long way! But once it’s in your fridge, you’ll find that any Asian dish you make suddenly will not work without a little spoonful of the stuff. I also think the nuoc cham would be equally delicious with mango instead of pineapple.

Nuoc Chom:

3 tablespoons fish sauce, soy sauce for vegan
1 ½ tablespoons honey, maple syrup or agave for vegan
3 teaspoons sambal oelek
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 tablespoons lime juice
3 tablespoons rice vinegar
¼ teaspoon freshly grated ginger
½ cup pineapple, diced tiny



2 tablespoons oil, canola, olive, grapeseed, etc
1 pound ground chicken, 8oz package tempeh, crumbled, for vegan
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger
1 tablespoon minced lemon grass
4 green onions, white and light green parts only, sliced
1/3 cup diced carrot
1/3 cup diced red bell pepper

To serve:

½ cup caramelized cashews, recipe follows
½ cup mung bean sprouts
½ cup cilantro
¼ cup Thai basil leaves
about 10 cabbage leaves, as needed

First, prepare the sauce. Combine all ingredients except pineapple. Whisk vigorously to combine. Remove ¼ cup. Add pineapple into the remaining sauce. Cover the sauce, and place in the fridge while you prepare the rest of the cups. 

Next, caramelize the cashews. Heat 1 tablespoon oil over high heat in a small skillet. Once hot, add the cashews and the ¼ cup of sauce you removed earlier. Cook for about 2-3 minutes, or until the cashews are nice and toasty and all the sauce has evaporated. Set aside.

Now, let’s make the filling. Heat 1 tablespoon oil over high heat in a large skillet. Add the chicken or crumbled tempeh and saute until chicken is cooked through or tempeh is nicely browned, about 4 minutes. Add the carrots, bell peppers, and green onions.  Stir fry for about 3 more minutes. Add in the garlic, ginger, and lemongrass and cook for 1 more minutes. Remove mixture and place in a serving bowl.

Now comes the fun part: assembly! I like to serve this DIY style, with all the components in separate bowls and plates so that your guests (or family!) can all make up their own perfect little cups. My way? I grab a cabbage cup, spoon in a—ahem—sizable amount of chicken filling, pile on the herbs, extra bean sprouts, extra cashews, and lots of nuoc chom, please!

Rebecca, author of Pacific Northwest Kitchen

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