Burmese Tea Leaf Salad

Beyond Rangoon: Burmese Cuisine

Burmese Tea Leaf Salad Photo by leesean 

by Mary Elizabeth Williams

Most of us enjoy our tea with a splash of milk or a dribble of honey, and maybe a few cookies on the side. But in Burmese cuisine, it’s served up with garlic, green chiles, and nuts — and it isn’t sipped, it’s chewed.

Burmese food isn’t technically Burmese any more — the country changed its name to Union of Myanmar seven years ago. Since the phrase “I feel like a little Myanmarese food tonight,” hasn’t quite caught on yet, the word “Burmese” hasn’t died. At Mandalay, San Francisco’s first (though today far from only) Burmese restaurant, the flavors of this Southeast Asian cuisine are spicy, silky, sweet, and salty — but most of all, they’re always surprising.

The wonders start with that tea dish, the lap pat dok. It is traditional salad, here gorgeously presented, with peanuts, dried shrimp, lentils, and other ingredients carefully arranged around a damp mound of green tea in the centerpiece.

The aromas of a lap pat dok are intoxicating; the flowery scent of the tea, the pungent garlic, and the nutty sesame seeds create a multilayered perfume that’s at once cozily familiar and intriguingly exotic. A waiter mixes the salad with a flourish, and warns that Burmese tea is very strong — stronger than coffee.

A caffeine jolt is not what one usually expects from an appetizer…a latte,yes, but not salad. Still, the road to Mandalay is paved with new experiences. The lap pat dok tastes a great deal like it smells — spicy and garlicky and nutty and well, tea-like. And there’s a wonderful mix of textures on the tongue — a crunchof a chile, a smoosh of soft leaves. It makes one feel simultaneously cosseted and burned.

The rest of a Burmese meal has much the same effect. Southeast Asian cooking is a remarkable hodgepodge of the culinary styles of both neighboring countries and influential visitors, like the British,who occupied Burma until 1948. And though political upheaval has had a tremendously inhibiting effect on Burma’s culture, the outside world is still evident in its multidimensional cuisine.

Chinese techniques, seen clearly in soups and main dishes, blend with an Indian love of spices and a melange of American and European tastes. For example, ong no hin yee, a coconut chicken soup, clearly takes its cues from its Indian counterpart but has a lighter, Mandarin inspired character.

Shiny vermicelli noodles put a new spin on the flavors of Thai cuisine, and ginger beef has echoes of its Indonesian cousin. Rice is served in a variety of ways, from fried to spiced to creamed in coconut, each version reflecting a different nearby influence. And for dessert, a sui gi mok, a distinctly unsweet treat that blendscream of wheat, coconut milk, and poppy seeds, wiggles like Jell-o and has the velvety flavor of a European porridge.

But in the end, it’s the tea salad that one remembers most; its green, moist scent, its satisfying snap in the mouth. And while eating it late at night may insure a little tossing and turning in bed, when sleep finally comes it’ll be filled with lush dreams of the gilded Buddhist temples and cool blue rivers of a faraway land.

Because Burmese tea leaves are not often found in American homes, you can use this alternative to lap pat dok ,which can be made using fresh ginger. Mandalay serves both the tea and ginger versions of this salad every night at their restaurant in San Francisco.

Ginger Salad Ingredients:

  • 2 cloves of sliced garlic
  • 1/4 of a cup of lentils
  • 1/4 of a cup of sliced green chiles
  • 1/4 of a cup of shelled peanuts
  • 1/4 of a cup of dried and ground shrimp (usually found in Asian supermarkets)
  • 1/4 of a cup of (toasted) sesame seeds
  • 1/4 of a cup of freshly sliced and peeled ginger stem
  • corn oil for frying

Dressing Ingredients:

  • 1 tablespoon of fish sauce (usually found in Asian supermarkets)
  • 1 teaspoon of lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon of corn oil

Fry the garlic, peanuts and lentils separately in the corn oil until the have just turned golden brown. Spoon them out of the pan and around plate with the shrimp and chilles and sprinkle with sesame seeds, and ginger. Whisk the ingredients for the sauce and drizzle into the center of the plate. Toss everything together and serve.

Serve 2 – 4