Before you sit down to a Burmese meal, you should know that when you finish your food you’ll be a changed person.
Flavors you previously loved will taste blander, other meals won’t feel as exciting. You will wonder if you should buy a ticket to San Francisco just for another chance to experience it all over again. (If you’re lucky, you’ll get to try a meal at the beloved West Coast Burma Superstar.)
The flavors of a Burmese meal will haunt you in the best of ways, but none of them more than tea leaf salad, or laphet thoke. What makes tea leaf salad so special is the tea leaf (laphet), of course. That’s right, in Myanmar, they don’t just drink their tea, they eat it too ― but first, they ferment it.
Laphet is a lesser known ingredient in the U.S. and Burma Superstar is about to change that with the restaurant’s recently released cookbook, Burma Superstar: Addictive Recipes from the Crossroads of Southeast Asia.
The book devotes pages to this beloved Burmese food and does a beautiful job of explaining its position in Myanmar’s culture. “Tea shops around Yangon and Myanmar pour gallons of green tea and black tea every day. Yet half of the tea consumed in Myanmar is eaten, not drunk. Made by fermenting just-picked Assam leaves, laphet — or what the Burmese call ‘pickled tea’— is slightly bitter, deeply savory, and strangely addictive,” the book’s section on Laphet begins.
Laphet is still a little-known ingredient, but thanks to establishments like Burma Superstar you can now even find it on Amazon.
The fermentation process is a long one and begins as soon as the leaves are picked, before they have a chance to oxidize. As Burma Superstar explains, the tea is “steamed, pressed to release excess water, and then rolled. The next day, it’s sorted by hand, with the smaller, higher-quality leaves separated from the larger leaves that stay in the local market. Then the tea is packed tightly in plastic-lined burlap sacks, packed down into the bags, and placed in cement containers in the ground. Weights — mostly heavy rocks — are put on top to help compress the leaves. The bags stay there to ferment for at least four months or up to two years.”
In Myanmar, Laphet is eaten in salads, as a snack or even as an after-dinner treat. Snack packs are sold there like chips are in the U.S., and they make a popular cheap meal for students who sprinkle it over rice. (It comes as an added bonus for students that this snack is naturally caffeinated.)
In other words, once you get your hands on some, you should include it in as many meals in your day as you can. Just make sure you try it in a tea leaf salad, we have the recipe reprinted from Burma Superstar cookbook below.
Tea Leaf Dressing
- 1/2 packed cup (about 2 ounces) whole fermented tea leaves (laphet) or 1/3 packed cup seasoned tea leaf paste (without oil)
- 1/3 cup canola oil
- 1 garlic clove, coarsely chopped
- 1/4 teaspoon dried chile flakes
- 1 teaspoon lime or lemon juice
If using whole, unseasoned laphet leaves, soak them for five minutes in cold water to extract some of the bitterness. Drain, squeezing the leaves to remove excess water. Taste the leaves. If they still taste extremely bitter, soak and drain again. Skip this step if using a seasoned paste.
Put the leaves or paste in a food processor with the garlic and chile flakes and pulse a few times. Add the lemon juice and half of the oil, briefly pulse, and then, with the processor running, drizzle in the rest of the oil. If the leaves are not preseasoned, add one teaspoon salt. If the leaves are already seasoned, add only a pinch or two of salt. You will have about one half cup of tea leaf dressing.
Tea Leaf Salad
“It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why tea leaf salad — laphet thoke — is so addictive, but it has something to do with its singular combination of textures and savory, salty, mildly sour flavors — and, of course, the caffeine kick you get after eating it. This version of laphet thoke is served in a large bowl with heaps of peanuts, toasted sesame seeds, crispy garlic, fried yellow split peas, tomato, jalapeño, and shredded lettuce. The textures and flavors all enhance the deep umami quality of the laphet.”
- 6 cups thinly sliced romaine lettuce (about 1 1/2 heads romaine)
- 1/2 cup Tea Leaf Dressing (above)
- 1/4 cup Fried Garlic Chips (below)
- 1/4 cup Fried Yellow Split Peas (printed below)
- 1/4 cup coarsely chopped toasted peanuts
- 1/4 cup toasted sunflower seeds
- 1 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds
- 1 Roma tomato, seeded and diced
- 1 small jalapeño, seeded and diced (about 1⁄4 cup)
- 1 tablespoon shrimp powder
- 2 teaspoons fish sauce or a few generous pinches of salt
- 1 lemon or lime, cut into
To make the salad, place a bed of lettuce in the center of a large plate or platter. Spoon the tea leaf dressing into the center of the lettuce. Around the lettuce, arrange separate piles of fried garlic, split peas, peanuts, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, tomato, and jalapeño. Sprinkle with shrimp powder and drizzle with fish sauce. Before serving, squeeze two lemon wedges over the plate. Using two forks, mix the ingredients together until the tea leaves lightly coat the lettuce. Taste, adding more lemon or fish sauce at the table, if desired.
Fried Garlic Chips and Garlic Oil
- 1/2 cup canola oil
- 1/3 cup thinly sliced fresh garlic
Line a heatproof bowl with a strainer. Line a plate with paper towels.In a wok or small saucepan, heat the oil over medium heat for a minute or two (the oil shouldn’t be scorching hot). Add garlic and gently stir. When bubbles start to form rapidly around the garlic, decrease heat to low and cook, stirring often, until the garlic is an even golden color and nearly completely crisp, about three minutes. If the garlic starts to darken too quickly, remove it from the heat and let it continue to fry in the oil.
Garlic and oil into the strainer. Lift the strainer up and shake off the excess oil. Scatter garlic onto the lined plate. The garlic should crisp up as it cools. The chips can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for month month. Refrigerate the oil up to six months.
Fried Yellow Split Peas
- 1/3 cup yellow split peas
- 1/2 cup canola oil
- Pinch of salt
Place peas in a bowl and cover one inch of water. Soak at least four hours or overnight. Drain split peas through a fine-mesh strainer, shaking off the excess water.
Line a plate with paper towels. In a wok or small saucepan, heat the oil over medium-high heat for one minute. Add the split peas. Once the oil starts to bubble rapidly around the split peas, lower the heat slightly and continue to fry, stirring often, until they begin to crisp up and turn slightly darker, about five minutes.
Drain well. Scatter the split peas on the lined plate and season with salt. The split peas should be crunchy, but not rock-hard, once cooled. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to two weeks.
You can get a copy of Burma Superstar: Addictive Recipes from the Crossroads of Southeast Asia for $19.49 on Amazon.