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The Sauce Makes It

Wednesday, August 4, 2004; Page F07

Every once in a while you stumble upon a dish that, no matter how foreign, instantly makes you feel at home.

The Thai street food known as miang kam consists in large part of a lettuce leaf cupped in one's palm and filled with tidbits of contrasting textures and flavors: minced shallots, dried shrimp, coarsely chopped peanuts, flaked coconut and shards of chili peppers.

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But that is only part of it. The flavors are tied together by a hauntingly sweet, syrupy condiment, a caramel sauce that is overloaded with palm sugar but that also has the warmth of ginger root, the salty smack of fish sauce and a short squeeze of lime. It is nubby and bumpy in texture owing to flecks of crushed peanuts and coconut that further reinforce its Thai roots.

Though the two components are usually seen as one, I make the lettuce bundles only as a vehicle for the sauce; or I make the sauce alone and drizzle it at will or savor it by the spoonful.

Miang Kam Sauce

Makes enough for 16 lettuce bundles

Those intimidated by the traditional miang kam filling ingredients may instead wish to wrap lettuce leaves around, say, shredded leftover roast chicken and julienned green apples. The squeeze of lime is a must.

Adapted from a recipe in "Comfort Me With Apples," by Ruth Reichl, editor of Gourmet magazine (Random House, 2002);

1/2 cup water

1/2 cup packed palm or light brown sugar

2 tablespoons Asian fish sauce

2 teaspoons peeled, finely chopped or grated fresh ginger root

2 tablespoons roasted salted peanuts, finely chopped

1/4 cup unsweetened shredded coconut, lightly toasted

Lime wedges

In a small saucepan over medium heat, whisk together the water and sugar. Bring to a gentle boil, stirring occasionally, and continue to heat until reduced to about 1/2 cup, for about 5 minutes. Remove the pan from heat and stir in the fish sauce, ginger, peanuts and coconut. Transfer to a serving bowl. Pass the limes on the side.

Per 1-tablespoon serving: 38 calories, trace protein, 7 gm carbohydrates, 1 gm fat, 0 mg cholesterol, trace saturated fat, 182 mg sodium, trace dietary fiber

-- Renee Schettler

© 2004 The Washington Post Company