Ancient Greeks and Romans were the people most responsible for what
we in the West view as “what’s for dinner.” They were
the ones who added lettuce-based salads and desserts to a menu that had
previously focused on just getting enough calories to survive.
I’ve actually noticed in my travels that, in areas outside the
cultural influence of Greece and Rome, these things don’t really
exist. In Asia, they will put out a sliced orange at the end of a meal,
because they’ve learned that American and European tourists
expect something sweet, but it’s not part of the culture, and a
nice tossed green salad is just not something you’re going to
find on a traditional Oriental menu.
Evidence from Egyptian tomb paintings indicates that lettuce was being
cultivated in Egypt before 4,500 BC, though the
first writings were Assyrian documents from around 800 BC, when lettuce was identified as being among the 250 plants
growing in the gardens of King Merodach-Baladan in Babylon. Herodotus
tells us that lettuce appeared on royal tables in Persia by about 550 BC, but it was a delicacy reserved for kings. These are all
locations surrounding the likely point of origin of lettuce, which was
inner Asia Minor, trans-Caucasus, Iran, and Turkistan.
Rome loved lettuce as soon as it arrived, which was before 500 BC, because by 500 BC, lettuce was
listed along with cabbage and artichokes as the three most popular
vegetables in the empire. It was the Romans who decided that leaf
lettuce would be nicer if there were more leaves and they were closer
together, so they bred the first head lettuce. The Romans preferred the
Cos lettuces, what we more commonly call Romaine (actually,
that’s why we call it Romaine—it was Rome’s lettuce,
though by the time the lettuce was being called Romaine, Rome was the
home of popes, not emperors). But the alternate name of Cos tells us
where the lettuce came from before it reached Rome: the Greek island of
Lettuce spread northward from the Mediterranean, both in wild and
cultivated forms. Actually, cultivated lettuce (Lactuca sativa)
is closely related to the wild lettuce (Lactuca scariola), from
which it seems likely (though not definite) that the domestic varieties
were developed. By 600 AD, lettuce was also
being grown in China, from whence it spread throughout Asia.
Lettuce continued to gain popularity through the Middle Ages, so it
was natural that it be among the plants brought to the New World once
the Atlantic had been crossed. And they brought it early. Columbus must
have taken seeds with him, as lettuce was growing on Isabela Island in
the Bahamas by 1494. Successive landfalls were made as new places were
explored and settled, and lettuce spread through North and South
America, both in wild and domestic forms.
Lettuce continued to be immensely popular. Thomas Jefferson grew 19
varieties of lettuce at Monticello. Three types of lettuce seed arrived
in Australia with the First Fleet in 1788, and it quickly spread there,
Today, lettuce continues to be immensely important. In the United
States, it is second only to potatoes as most popular fresh vegetable.
The average American consumes around 30 pounds of lettuce each year.
But lettuce is important worldwide, including in those countries where
a tossed green salad is almost unknown. It is the world’s most
popular salad plant.
Lettuce probably gets its name from the Old French laitues (plural
of laitue, the French name for lettuce). Like the plant’s
Latin name, Lactuca (think lactose), the French name laitue also
means “milky” (milk is lait in French). This is
because lettuce has a milky juice running in its veins—a juice
which, like milk, is mildly sedative.
The recipe below is for a Thai dish called larb nua. This is the
first Thai dish I ever had, though it has now been a couple of decades
since my brother first took me to the Thai Room on Western for my
birthday—back when there were only a few Thai restaurants around.
He ordered, as he was already familiar with the cuisine, and larb was
our starter. I loved it, and still do. As is common in Asia, though
this is called a salad, lettuce plays only a supporting role. This dish
can also be made with ground chicken, in which case it is larb kai.
Lettuce (about 1 head iceberg or 3 heads butter lettuce)
Mint sprigs for garnish, if desired
In a small pan, cook the rice over medium heat,
shaking the pan frequently, until the rice is a nice golden brown,
about 4 to 8 minutes. Grind the rice fine in a blender or coffee
grinder, and set aside. (Alternatively, if you have a good Asian
grocery store, you can just buy toasted ground rice. But this is so
easy to make, I don’t bother, since I need so little for this
Put the ground beef, lime juice, fish sauce, galangal powder, and
onions into a skillet and stir to combine, breaking apart the beef.
Still stirring occasionally, to keep beef broken apart, cook this
combination over medium-high heat for about 5-7 minutes, or until the
beef is cooked.
Remove the skillet from the heat. Add the scallions, cilantro, mint,
crushed red pepper, and ground rice. Mix thoroughly so that all the
ingredients are well combined. Serve immediately
There are two primary ways for serving this dish. One way is to put
down a bed of lettuce leaves and pile the larb on top. The other way is
to have the lettuce and larb separate, and spoon larb into individual
lettuce leaves and eat them as wraps. The first way is tidier, the
second way is more fun.
Serves 6‑7 as a first course, 3‑4 as a meal.
Key lime juice is your best choice, as key limes are
the same basic lime variety as Southeast Asian limes.
A full tsp. of crushed red pepper makes this pretty
fiery—which is authentic, but perhaps not to your taste. If you
are unaccustomed to spicy food, you might want to start with ½
tsp, or even ⅓ tsp. of the red pepper. You could even leave it out.
It will still be delicious.
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