As we know by now after (virtually) spending half a month in Myanmar, the country is really known for its very unique, healthy and fragrant salads. Today, I decided to share with you the famous Burmese fermented tea leaf salad, also known as lahpet thoke.
“Of all the fruits, mango is the best; of all the meats, pork is the best; of all the leaves, laphet is the best.” – Popular Burmese expression
Lahpet, also spelled laphet, lephet, letpet, or leppet is fermented or pickled tea leaf, and it has a very long history in Myanmar. In ancient times, fermented tea leaves were used as a peace symbol or as a peace offering between kingdoms at war. Now, a lahpet tray is the traditional expression of hospitality offering to houseguests.
There are two main traditional ways to consume pickled tea leaf or lahpet. The first one as a meal or salad called lahpet thoke and the second one as a main snack called ahlu lahpet.
In a typical lahpet thoke (or fermented tea salad), fried legumes such as butter beans or yellow split peas, as well as toasted sesame seeds, fried garlic, roasted peanuts, dried shrimp, chili, sliced tomatoes, shredded cabbage and oil, are added to the pickled tea leaves. You can then add fresh lime juice or fish sauce to season.
When served as a snack, pickled tea leaf is called ahlu laphet (ahlu means “donation ceremony”), and all the ingredients are served separately in a tray. This presentation is traditionally served after a meal, at ceremonies such as engagements, weddings, and funeral ceremonies.
Lahpet is so important to the Burmese culture that when tea leaves are harvested, the best of the crop is set aside for fermenting and eating, while the rest is dried and processed for tea and drinking. The freshly harvested tea leaves are briefly steamed, then packed into bamboo vats and set in pits, pressed by heavy weights to encourage fermentation.
The original taste of tea leaf is very bitter and its bitterness is therefore reduced after the rinsing and fermentation processes. The traditional process calls for a full fermentation of 3 to 4 months.
Nowadays, there are easiest and quickest ways to make lahpet that come very close in terms of taste and texture to the original method.
Burmese cuisine features six flavors: sour, bitter, salty, astringent, sweet and spicy. And as you may have imagined, the astringent flavor is often represented by tea.
Around the world, tea leaves are consumed in three distinct forms: green tea, black tea and oolong tea. The world’s consumption of Camellia sinensis (the tea plant) in the form of green tea represents approximately 20% and the remaining 80% is consumed as black and oolong tea. Tea plants are traditionally cultivated in the mountain regions of Myanmar. mainly on the hills in northern Shan State around Namhsan in the Palaung substate of Tawngpeng, but also around Mogok in Mandalay Division, and Kengtung in southern Shan State. Those regions have the best climate with sufficient humidity, appropriate sunshine, and a fertile soil.
Tea leaf is known as the “Lord of leaves” because of its health benefits, mostly coming from its polyphenols compounds, including flavanols, flavandiols, flavonoids, and phenolic acids, which account for close to 40% of its dry weight.
Lahpet’s caffeinated effect is also popular in Myanmar society. Indeed, its stimulant effect to ward off tiredness and sleepiness is especially popular with students preparing for exams, pwè goers at all-night theatrical performances, and helpers at funerals have to stay up overnight. A number of people have lahpet together with plain white rice.
Burmese tea leaf salad or lahpet thoke (လက်ဖက်သုတ်) is not only popular in Myanmar. In fact, in the Northern Thai provinces of Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Mae Hong Son, lahpet thoke is often offered at restaurants where Shan ethnic food is served. In Thailand, it is called yam miang.
I prepared lahpet thoke ahead of the Burmese cooking class I co-hosted with my friend Soe. I left the tea leaves ferment for about 4 days, but 3 days should be enough in warmer climates like Los Angeles.
I absolutely loved the earthy and tangy tastes of this very unique salad. Fermented tea leaves actually serve as a base for making the salad as they must be combined with shredded cabbage, fried split peas, and tomato wedges, among other ingredients. The resulting salad is nothing like what you’ve ever eaten in your life. Lahpet thoke was a real discovery for me, and I have to say I will surely make it again.
Recipe of Lahpet (Pickled or Fermented Tea Leaves)
Ingredients (for 8 people)
Preparation time: 20 minutes
Rest time: 3 days
- 1 cup dried green tea leaves
1 cup finely chopped cabbage
½ cup finely chopped scallions
½ cup finely chopped cilantro
1 (1-inch) piece of ginger, peeled and finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, crushed
½ Thai chili pepper, finely chopped (optional)
Zest of 2 limes
Juice of 2 limes
1 cup vegetable oil
Infuse the dried green tea leaves in hot water for 10 minutes.
Discard the liquid (or drink it), and cover tea leaves with lukewarm water. Drain and press on the leaves thoroughly to get rid of bitter juices. Repeat this step two more times.
After discarding the liquid again, add cold water, and let the leaves soak for at least 2 hours (or overnight).
Drain out excess liquid thoroughly by squeezing the leaves one handful at a time. Then, finely chopped the leaves in a blender or food processor.
Mix the drained chopped tea leaves with shredded cabbage, cilantro, scallions, as well as ginger, garlic, and Thai chili (optional).
Finally, sprinkle lime zest, pour in lime juice, and mix well.
Place the mixture in a glass or earthenware container and cover tightly.
Let the mixture ferment at room temperature for 3 to 4 days.
Add 1 cup of vegetable oil to the fermented tea leaves.
Recipe of Lahpet Thoke (Fermented Tea Leaf Salad)
Preparation time: 5 minutes
Ingredients (for 1 person)
- ¾ cup fermented tea leaves
2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds
3 tablespoons roasted peanuts
1 tablespoon fried garlic (fried, thinly sliced garlic)
1 tablespoon fried yellow split peas (after soaking overnight)
1 tomato, sliced in thin wedges
2 tablespoons dried shrimp soaked in water for 10 minutes and drained (optional)
1 cup shredded cabbage
Juice of 1 lime
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon fish sauce
1 tablespoon garlic oil
Mix all the ingredients but the garlic oil thoroughly.
Drizzle with garlic oil to finish.