Photo by Jerry Redfern
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.
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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.”How to Make Laphet Thote
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