"How are you going to write a recipe for tea leaf salad?"
This was the first question people asked me when I told them I was writing the Burma Superstar cookbook. It was a good one, too: tea leaf salad is the restaurant's most popular dish, but the key ingredient, laphet (fermented tea leaves), is hard to find outside of Burmese restaurants.
Because of its popularity, tea leaf salad would be one of the first recipes that people looked for in the book. You know how guide books list signature foods, i.e. Chicago has its hotdogs/deep dish/Italian beef, New York has its pizza/corned beef/bagels, and so on? For the longest time, the San Francisco guide-book list comprised cioppino, sourdough, and Mission-style burritos. These days, though, I'd argue that the SF list could very well include tea leaf salad. It's hard to find this salad (or Burmese restaurants, for that matter), outside of the Bay Area. When friends come to town looking for food that they can't find back home, a Burmese meal is often on the list. And nearly every meal at a Bay Area Burmese restaurant starts with tea leaf salad.
Some restaurants stay traditional by making the salad with shredded cabbage. Others, like Burma Superstar, go California-style and use romaine lettuce. No matter the greens, the best tea leaf salads are always a mix of textures and savory flavors, from fried garlic chips and crispy yellow split peas to toasted sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, peanuts, ground dried shrimp, sliced roma tomatoes, fresh green chiles, and fish sauce. The tea leaf, which is blended with oil, salt, garlic, and salt (and often MSG) until it forms a murky army-green paste, is mixed into the salad with a little lime or lemon. Like drinking a cup of tea, eating tea provides a little caffeine boost, which may be one of the reasons that once people try it, they want to eat it again
Still, why would anyone want to eat tea instead of drink it? To truly understand, it helps to know a little more about laphet.
Pronounced "la-PET," the fermented tea that gives tea leaf salad its signature flavor comes from the Shan State, a part of Myanmar (the country formerly called Burma) that borders China and Thailand. The best laphet comes from the Namhsan township, which is made up of villages connected by one narrow, muddy road that's constantly under repair. The township is frequently shut off from foreigners due to ongoing fighting between the Shan army and the national Burmese army, and it's still rebuilding after a fire tore through several villages in 2016. But it's in these misty mountains that tea leaves are picked, steamed, and fermented underground for roughly six months (or up to two years) before making the seven-hour trek to Mandalay. Laphet has been made here by the Palaung people, one of Myanmar's many ethnic minority groups, for centuries. Considering the lengthy fermentation process, the remote growing region, and the learning curve involved with understanding how to eat this food outside of Myanmar, it's frankly amazing that laphet makes it to the US at all.
For years, the only way it did reach the US was when people flew back from Myanmar with a suitcase loaded with laphet, since trade sanctions prevented the importation of Burmese goods. Or inferior laphet would go to Thailand or Malaysia and be repackaged and sold with a new country of origin on the label. Today, sanctions have been dropped, and Burma Superstar now works with tea farmers and producers in Namhsan to make their laphet. They have also started to sell their laphet "dressing" in Bay Area stores so people can make tea leaf salad at home. But in the Burmese expat community, old habits die hard. I asked MiMi Aye, a Burmese food expert in London, if she can find it where she lives. While a few Burmese grocery stores on the outskirts of London sell it, she answered, Burmese still prefer to bring it back with them from Myanmar. So do Burmese in the Bay Area. It's still very much a Samsonite ingredient.
Which brings me back to the original question -- how was I going to include a recipe for tea leaf salad in a cookbook that would be distributed beyond the Bay Area and removed from reliable sources for laphet? I had to come up with a faux fix.
This was tricky. MiMi shared an article about tea leaf salad on Twitter that offered sauerkraut or kimchi as substitutes for laphet, as if the writers had googled "fermented foods" and figured these would be adequate substitutes. (She also found more egregious tea leaf creations.) But even though laphet is fermented, as is sauerkraut and kimchi, it doesn't taste as sharp as those foods. Fermented tea leaves release tar-black oil as they age, but they never swim around in brine like kraut.
At the same time, laphet doesn't really taste like typical brewed green or black tea, either. To me, its aromas bring to mind bamboo shoots and overripe mangos and the kind of familair mustiness that comes from air-conditioned interiors in the tropics. When you taste it before it's seasoned, it can be enamel-strippingly astringent, but after being soaked and blended with garlic and sometimes ginger, the tannins mellow, giving way to a funky tanginess.
Back to the faux tea leaf salad dressing. I had already accepted that my faux version, which I'd make with green tea, wouldn't be the same, but it needed to deliver depth of flavor. The trick was getting a funky bass note into the dressing so it didn't taste like Sencha pesto. My method was time: I brewed green tea and then left the spent tea leaves, partially covered so they wouldn't dry out, on the counter for a few days until they took on a "overripe fruit" aroma. Then I blended it with a clove of garlic, a spoonful of fresh minced ginger, and a splash of vinegar to bring acidity.
The results? A Burmese-inspired salad filled with crunch and texture (and caffeine). Will it displace the real deal? No, but it's certainly a fine way to have your tea and eat it too (haha).
For more on faux tea leaf salad, the San Francisco Chronicle has the recipe and a video here.
Still, nothing really compares to eating laphet close to the source. This last image came from a day spent sampling laphet from one of the many "wet tea" shops in Mandalay, where you can laphet to take home. In thee shops, the best tea leaves are kept whole once seasoned, making for the ultimate laphet appreciation.