I’ve never been a huge fan of salad. I blame it on my upbringing. Salad rarely featured in the family meal. If it did, it was a sad, disconnected, hastily constructed affair. Iceberg lettuce leaves, unwieldy wedges of tomato, sad circles of cucumber, whole small spring onions (the green ends frayed with a knife), and sliced radish were the usual suspects. I don’t remember a dressing of any sort. Salad rocked up on our kitchen table with this ‘I can’t be arsed’ look about it. It reflected what i thought about salad for years.
It wasn’t until I swapped tepid British summers for the muggy Sydney alternative that salad found a place in my life. But i hadn’t been completely won over until I visited Burma, or Myanmar as it’s now called. The lightbulb moment happened at a family run restaurant where a fresh bean salad trumped a superb traditional curry. Salad was the hero of the meal. You could have knocked me over with a lettuce leaf.
Unlike Western combinations of greens and dressings, a Burmese salad – or thote – is often centred on one vegetable ingredient. Cauliflower, beans, and pickled tea-leaves were individually the central ingredient in salads we sampled in Myanmar. In an Introduction to Myanmar Cuisine Ma Thanegi explains that the Burmese like their salads “chin-chin, ngan-ngan, sut-sut”, which means sour, salty and hot.
Of all the salads, the pickled tea-leaf salad (la phet thote) is the most popular snack in the country. The young green tea leaves are steamed and buried underground for around six months for the fermentation process to take place. For salad they are traditionally washed and pounded with garlic, seeped in oil, and then served with sesame seeds, nuts, fried beans, dried fish and fried garlic. It is considered an honourable dish and is served at all important ceremonies. But the Burmese are also said to eat it if they need a caffeine hit!
I had my first taste of tea-leaf salad at a group meal in Shanghai (of all places) last year. We fell on it like vultures. In Myanmar I set off on a mission to learn how to make it. The opportunity arose when I met Phyo, a lovely, young restaurant owner at Ngapali Beach on the west coast. She promised to show me the ropes, but our arrangements fell through, twice, and eventually our stay at the beach was over. Two weeks later and over 500 kilometres away in central Myanmar we were bicycling along a dusty, pot-holed road in the Buddhist temple studded town of Bagan when a passing motorbike passenger flagged us down. It was Phyo. We hugged and laughed at the amazing coincidence (her family lived there). She invited us to her family home for lunch.
Thanegi explains that in Myanmar to be ei wuk kyay, which means to be hospitable, is the criterion of perfect social behaviour.
“Our food culture is based on sharing … Travellers stopping by a village would be welcomed to share a meal at a monastery if not at someone’s house. It gives not only joy but great merit to feed others with a generous heart, and this Buddhist concept rules the social life of the people.”
Phyo was the epitome of Burmese hospitality. We hungrily accepted her invitation.
As it turns out, tea-leaf salad is surprisingly easy to make. There are few ingredients and it’s easy to assemble. The difficulty is sourcing some of the ingredients outside of Myanmar. I brought a small supply home with me. But i’ve sourced an online supplier for when my stash runs out.
The core ingredients are pickled tea-leaves and a collection of fried beans, toasted sesame seeds, roasted peanuts, and fried garlic, which is found pre-mixed at markets throughout Myanmar. Often the beans are twice fried to a delicate brittleness. Phyo used about a cup of bean mix, to which she added a small handful of pickled tea-leaves, two small and thinly sliced tomatoes, 3 sliced cloves of garlic, several small red chillies, and a generous glug of oil. She mixed the whole lot together by hand.
Every tea-leaf salad that I ate in Myanmar was similar, yet unique. Phyo sprinkled a handful of dried shrimp on top. I was served another version that had thinly sliced cabbage mixed through. Each mouthful is always a memorable crunch explosion. It’s also addictively spicy and contrasted by the slight sourness of the leaves. It’s surprisingly filling.
While I was researching tea-leaf salad I came across the website has*ba (which means ‘please eat’), written by cookbook author Tin Cho Chaw. Cho explains that traditionally laphet is served when Burmese people receive visitors, in an elaborately decorated lacquerware with different compartments to house each ingredient.
“A little of each crispy titbit and laphet are spooned straight into the mouth and savoured slowly, sometimes with a bite of raw garlic and green chilli. A cup of hot tea completes the ritual … This salad makes a great appetiser served with a cool glass of beer to whet the appetite.”
I have ordered Cho’s cookbook, has*ba, and I am eagerly awaiting its arrival. In the meantime, Cho kindly agreed to share her recipe for tea-leaf salad.
1 tablespoon pickled tea-leaves
125ml peanut oil
5 garlic cloves, sliced
30g chana dal (or yellow split peas)
30g dried butter beans
20g unsalted peanuts, roasted
1 tablespoon sesame seeds, toasted
1 teaspoon dried shrimps, pounded into floss
2 green chillies, sliced
1 tomato, chopped
1 teaspoon fish sauce
½ lime, juiced
Soak both the chana dal and butter beans in separate bowls of water for 8 hours or overnight. Drain and pat dry thoroughly with kitchen paper.
Heat the oil in a saucepan and fry the garlic until golden. Remove from the oil and drain on kitchen paper. Do the same for chana dal and butter beans. Reserve 1 tablespoon of the frying oil.
When all the fried ingredients are cool, put them in a bowl and add the pickled tea leaves and the remaining ingredients. Mix with a tablespoon of the frying oil. Taste and adjust seasoning as you wish. I like to add a dash more lime.
Cooking time: 20 minutes
Note from The Food Sage: I cover the tea leaves in water for about five minutes, then squeeze to remove the water. This removes some of the sourness from the leaves.
Now, I know what you’re going to say. ‘Where on earth can I find pickled tea-leaves?’
I haven’t found them in Australia, yet (though, I’m still trying). However, you can order them online at Mum’s House: Burmese Food & Products, which is based in the United Kingdom. The proprietor confirmed that they ship to Australia, and that pickled tea-leaves are allowed to be imported. Mum’s House stocks the brand that I brought back from my gastronomic adventure: Ah Yee Taung.
Tea-leaf salad is a crunch-packed, caffeine-smacked snack that will convert the most seasoned salad snubbers. Give it a try.