Lahpet Thohk, Burmese Fermented Tea Leaf Salad
Myanmar is proud of its tea, and for good reason. What we know as tea today, Camellia Sinensis, is native to Southeast Asia, specifically to the area where northern Myanmar, southwestern China, northeastern India and Tibet meet. So tea has been a part of Burmese tradition for thousands of years, and it’s no surprise that drinking tea is a national pastime. Of course, there’s no better place to do that than in a tea house, and in Myanmar there’s no shortage of those. You thought that the Brits were crazy about tea? They’ve got nothing on the Burmese, where you'll find a tea shop on nearly every corner, where they serve as the social destination, and where one can go to have a bite, a smoke, catch up on some gossip, possibly engage in political discourse (a more recent advent). Sounds more like a Brittish pub, doesn't it? Burmese tea is of the highest quality and its production remains largely artesian, which may be why tea from Myanmar is becoming known in China and Japan. Still, relatively little of the country’s production is exported, resulting in an abundance of the product nationally and lending tea a heightened stance in Burmese society. There’s a popular expression which exemplifies its importance, which is “Of all the fruit, the mango's the best; of all the meat, the pork's the best; and of all the leaves, lahpet's the best.” It is also said that historically it was a symbolic peace offering between warring kingdoms, and was exchanged and consumed after settling disputes. The word “lahpet” means green tea. However, you will see it used to specifically refer to fermented or pickled green tea leaves. These pickled tea leaves are eaten, generally in lahpet thoke (tea leaf salad) or as a side dish in which it is wok fried and sprinkled with sesame oil. Tea leaf salad is a national delicacy and plays a vital role in Burmese society. In order to prepare lahpet, the best young tea leaves are picked, quickly steamed, then packed into bamboo vats or tubes and pressed with heavy weights for varying lengths of time. The leaves are washed then mixed with oil, chilies, garlic and salt and allowed to ferment. Once the desired flavor and texture has been achieved, it is either presented on a sectioned platter or mixed with crispy peas and beans, sesame seeds, peanuts, chilies, lime, fish sauce, shrimp dust, cabbage and a variety of other ingredients. The resulting dish is generally surprising to Western palates, with an almost hyper-savory quality of the tea leaves mixing with the multiple textures and flavors of the other ingredients. But don't think at all once you've had one you've had "it." You’ll find as many versions of lahpet thoke as you find food stalls or restaurants selling it.