The Burmese have a saying: “Among meats, pork is best; among fruits, mango is king; and among leaves, nothing beats tea.” Such reverence explains the country’s affection for laphet thote, or tea leaf salad (laphet means tea, thote means salad). The dish—equal parts bitter and savory—is a crunchy combination of butter beans, yellow peas, roasted sesame seeds, peanuts, dried prawns, tamarind or lime, chile, garlic, oil, and the star ingredient, pickled tea leaves.
“No party nor feast, nor even a formal festivity” is complete in Burma (now known as Myanmar) without laphet thote, writes scholar U Ba Than in his 2003 book, Myanmar’s Attractions and Delights. For years, a main expression of hospitality has included offering houseguests betel nut, tobacco, and laphet thote. As far back as many families can remember, they have kept a partitioned bamboo lacquerware tray in which to serve the ingredients for the salad. “There’s something really wonderful about eating laphet thote and drinking tea and catching up on gossip,” says Tin Cho Chaw, author of the Burmese cookbook Hsa Ba.
Most locals prefer to buy their own pickled leaves and dry ingredients at the market and then mix them at home. In her cookbook, Chaw describes the customary way of eating laphet thote with guests in the home: “A little of each crispy tidbit and laphet are spooned straight into the mouth and savored slowly, sometimes with a bite of raw garlic and green chile. A cup of hot tea completes the ritual.” Street stalls sell plates of salad throughout the country for about 500 kyat, or 50 cents.
Laphet thote is prepared in two primary ways, enhancing either its spiciness (with a mouth-burning amount of chile) or its bitterness (the tea leaves’ natural flavor, which can be reduced by rinsing them). After the salad is finished, one Burmese custom remains: swiping a finger across the plate to savor the laphet thote juice. Many believe the magic lies in that liquid, according to one Yangon journalist, who says, “This taste is even better than the salad.”
Adapted from the recipe of Moe Moe Hlaing of the Daw Yeik Kyi laphet thote stand, Sule Pagoda Road, Yangon
1 handful of pickled tea leaves (more if desired)
1 tsp fish sauce
1 1⁄2 tbsp sesame seeds
1 1⁄2 tbsp fresh yellow beans (broad or butter beans)
1 1⁄2 tbsp dried yellow peas
1 1⁄2 tbsp roasted peanuts
Pinch of salt
1 tbsp tamarind juice
1 tbsp peanut oil
1⁄4 cup shredded cabbage
1 sliced tomato
Whole, raw, hot green chiles, also called Thai bird’s-eye chiles
Raw garlic cloves (small Asian variety), skin on
1. Boil the tea leaves until they are soft, then rinse with cold water to remove some of the bitterness.
2. With a mortar and pestle, pulverize the leaves and fish sauce.
3. Transfer to a bowl and knead the mixture by hand until blended. (Locals say if you mix the salad with a spoon, the flavors will not blend as well.)
4. Add in all of the remaining ingredients. Taste and adjust ingredients for the balance of bitter/ sour/salty/spicy that you prefer.
5. For a zingy option, add shredded cabbage and sliced tomato and serve the salad with raw chile and garlic cloves on the side.