Pure Bliss: Burmese Tea Leaf Salad
Byline: Laura Blum
In recent years, green tea has gained a respectable place in the American beverage market. Though who ever heard of eating the stuff? Ask the 53 million citizens of Myanmar, where tea leaf salad is a linchpin of the national diet. I sampled my first forkful as the country formerly known as Burma was having its latest human rights crisis. But in keeping with the local tradition, let's keep politics out of the kitchen.
Dagon Burmese Cuisine does. That's the Burmese dinner spot in Honolulu where I discovered lahpet ("green tea") thoke ("blended by hand," or "salad"). My host had long since become hooked, and was frantic for a next fix. But pickled tea leaves? I was unconvinced. Nothing could prepare me for the event that would rock my palate, not even the trippy Burmese art adorning Dagon's walls (as seen in photos 1- 3).
Tea leaves are not so much a food as an awakening. Fermented into a dark pesto, these chlorophyll clumps are as invigorating for their wild, tangy flavor as for their loopy caffeine buzz. Had I not been jet lagged, they may have kept me up. In Myanmar, lahpet thoke can materialize at the breakfast table in the same way that brewed tea often kicks off the day, chef and owner Khun Sai told thalo.com. Or it might perk up a lunch or dinner. As far as the Burmese are concerned, there's no bad time for a tea leaf salad, and they clearly have a point.
Twelve ingredients go into tea leaf salad, some say one for each month of the year. Together they create a riot of textures and tastes. Roasted peanuts and sesame seeds join with crunchy yellow and green split peas, crushed dried shrimp and crispy fried garlic medallions to lend heft amid soft curls of romaine lettuce (or cabbage, depending on the region), diced jalapeño peppers and slivered tomatoes. Roasted sunflower seeds round out the trail mix effect, making tea leaf salad potentially handy for hiking were it not so glisteningly moist. Yet there's no dressing as such. Instead, the marshy compost leaches into the whole concoction, modulating the cool with the spicy, the cooked with the raw, the savory with the sweet.
It's easy to get why lahpet thoke is a Burmese favorite. Its aromatic blend unlocks the sensation of umami as if the mission were not calories but awareness. Chef Sai has a more pragmatic philosophy: tea leaf salad is a balm for the wallet. At most, he allows that its healthful properties nourish the mind. But canvass his blissed-out clientele and you're sure to detect the salad's spiritual powers. And that's quite apart from the wine he says they like to pair it with.
Underestimate lahpet at your peril. A history as dazzling as any pagoda elevates the leafy sludge. It was an ancient token of peace between warring Southeast Asia kingdoms, and the tradition survived through British Colonial Burma to clinch a settlement of a dispute. Today, however, tea leaf salad has largely shed its ceremonial status. It wouldn't do to serve such inexpensive fare at a wedding, Sai explained. But vault the Pacific, and the old Burmese stand-by is a delicacy.
Burmese cuisine can be tough to come by in the United States. Few Burmese were granted passports during 25 years of military rule beginning in 1962, and the legacy of repression and isolation is still playing out. Additionally, the cost of running an authentic Burmese restaurant is prohibitive for many immigrants, especially in the far-away East Coast. Search food-obsessed Manhattan, and all you'll turn up is Cafe Mingala on the Upper East Side. A subway ride away, in Flushing, Queens, is a pan-Asian joint called Crazy Crab.
Both offer tea leaf salad -- served with the ingredients already tossed -- but their tea leaves are imported from the mother country with a dosage of Monosodium Glutamate. So are Little Yangon's, in the Bay area. San Francisco's Burma Superstar and Mandalay are safer bets. They, like Dagon, keep their Camellia sinensis MSG-free, they told thalo.
It took some doing to source the "highest quality brand" that Sai brings in from Myanmar, he said. Wary of the postal service, he relies on personal couriers passing through Oahu en route to San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York. New packages arrive about every month. Once the fermented leaves reach Dagon, Sai further marinates them in vegetable oil, fresh garlic and ginger for 24 hours before serving. Tea leaf salad is the rare item on his menu that doesn't hint at Burma's geography alongside Thailand, Laos, China, India and Bangladesh. Its influences are purely Burmese. But as with his curries and kebats, Sai tempers the heat quotient to suit American tastes. And he lightens the overall sensibility.
"You have to know what kind of customer you have," declared Sai. "We cannot be doing pure Burmese." He continued, "Over there the weather is really humid and tropical. Burmese people work really hard under the hot sun, so they sweat a lot and they have to eat more salt and energy food." Sai's modified approach comes from observing Burmese establishments in the Bay Area, including Sapphire Asian Cuisine - Taste Of Burma, and its companion Sapphire Lounge, which he helped manage before opening his cozy restaurant in Hawaii two-and-a-half years ago (as seen in photo 4).
The experience taught him to prepare more mellow fare than the spicy, briny, peanut-oil-laden home cooking he learned from his mother in Myitkyina, the capital city of Kachin State, before the family moved to Rangoon (now Yangon) when he was 15. "My mom made tea leaf salad every day," Sai recalled. "It was her way of getting me to eat vegetables."
By the same token, his way of getting Americans to eat lahpet thoke takes some fancy maneuvering. Why else blend the salad in public view? For one, the sporty toss has become popular table-side entertainment. More critically, Sai explained, displaying the nuts and seeds is a hedge against potential law suits from allergic customers. And then there are pure aesthetics. "Tea leaves look ugly, actually," he fessed up about the star ingredient of his top-selling item. "You have to present them separately so Americans can see what they look like before they get thrown in with everything else."
Photo 1: Photo of tea leaf salad courtesy of Dagon.
Photo 2: Photo of the restaurant's wall art courtesy of Dagon.
Photo 3: Photo of the restaurant's facade courtesy of Dagon.
Photo 4: Chef Khun Sai tossing a tea leaf salad. Photo courtesy of Dagon.