In isolation this week, I have retreated into a bubble, time out before I return to face the news from outside. I greedily soak in the familiarity of the view from the window, the things in the room, the noise from outside…the hum of everyday life is enormously comforting. What then, I wonder, can I write about tea? But the law of attraction must exist. Because when I decide to order lunch and wander through the app of gastronomic excesses, I come across a dish I have never heard of before—tea leaf salad. Or more correctly, fermented tea leaf salad, apparently a Burmese staple. I order it.
Laphet thoke, I learn, is the name of this Burmese dish. I have only known the khao suey from this cuisine so I wait, eager to see what it’s like. The salad, almost a meal in itself, is a mix of textures and flavours—lettuce, dried beans of some sort, garlic, peanuts, lime…. I could taste them but couldn’t isolate the fermented tea leaves to see what that was like. I know they were there and that was good enough for me. I marvel at how one is always stumbling upon another tea recipe. Not too infrequently, I am asked: But how many more stories can there be about tea? And I say, maybe 1001.
Given its proximity to India and China, it’s no surprise that Myanmar grows tea. But much of it goes into domestic consumption. The tea cultivar here is the Camellia sinensis assamica. The salad I tried is called laphet thoke and I hear that laphet (the fermented tea leaf) mixed with plain white rice is also a much loved dish. Like a chutney rice we have here, I think.
I got this laphet recipe from a tea friend. You will need freshly plucked tea leaves, challenging if you don’t live near a tea garden. But when travel opens up again and you visit one, do remember to bring back some green tea leaves.
Take 200g of freshly plucked tea leaves (no stalks), wash with warm water, knead with salt (“a generous amount”) and gently squeeze the leaves. Repeat this three-four times to remove the bitterness from the leaves. Then, pickle with salt, lime juice, vegetable oil, diced garlic and crushed green chilli. You can bottle and keep aside for a couple of days to have a quick-fermented laphet. Note, there must be enough oil to cover the mixture, just like with our pickles.
The more traditional way of fermenting is to steam the green leaves and then remove all the water, allowing the leaves to ferment in a clay pot. It takes three-four months for the leaves to break down and lose the acidity. They are then washed and mixed with garlic, chilli, lime juice and oil.
But since it’s unlikely that you can make your own laphet just yet, do try sourcing it from a Burmese restaurant or store or friend. Think of it as a salad dressing. It works well in South-East Asian salads. Or serve it Burmese style, in a platter with an assortment of ingredients like lettuce and tomatoes, dried prawns, dried legumes, peanuts, shredded cabbage, fried garlic. The salad also works really well as a snack with a hot mug of chai.
Tea Nanny is a weekly series steeped in the world of tea. Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry.