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An armchair trip to Mandalay

Burmese cuisine in incomplete without tea, and a speacility movement is brewing with white teas and oolong

Two men chat over tea in Yangon, Myanmar.
Two men chat over tea in Yangon, Myanmar. (Istockphoto)

This week too, I am looking at our neighbours and their tea. I remember lines from Rudyard Kiping’s Mandalay: “If you’ve ’eard the East a-callin’, you won’t never ’eed naught else.”/ No! You won’t ’eed nothin’ else/ But them spicy garlic smells,/ An’ the sunshine an’ the palm-trees an’ the tinkly temple-bells/ On the road to Mandalay…

They conjure up images of a Burma (now Myanmar) of another era. I get a peek of it via cups of its tea. I am in the restaurant Burma Burma in Bengaluru. Its owner, Ankit Gupta, talks about choosing to add a tearoom to his restaurant as a tribute to Myanmar’s teahouse culture. In Myanmar, he says, teahouses, open at dawn, can be found at every street corner. Family-owned, small and accessible, they are “bustling with locals and with a welcoming aroma of Burmese tea, snacks and noodles”. The tea is laphet yay, made with black tea and condensed milk. Pots of green tea are placed at every table, like water. It’s the snacks that change depending on the time of day, from tohu nuay (a chickpea tofu soup) and ohn no khowsuey (noodle soup in coconut milk) in the morning to laphet thoke (tea leaf salad), fritters and puff pastries in the evening. 

Also read | A tea salad named ‘laphet’

The British occupied Myanmar for over a century, from 1824-1948, and Indians were taken there to work as civil servants, traders, artisans and labourers. Some believe this is when the teahouse culture evolved.

The 1970s, however, saw an exodus of Indian settlers after a political coup and a strong wave of anti-Indian sentiment. Among those who left were Gupta’s mother and her family. But they held on to their connections via food. Buddhist monks from Myanmar visiting India for vipassana would obligingly carry packets of pickled fruit and fermented tea leaf, a condiment that puts Myanmar on the tea map. Laphet, as it’s known, is consumed every day, mostly as a salad called laphet thoke. It’s one of many ways the Burmese enjoy tea.

Gupta began his acquaintance with the country in 2010, when Myanmar opened up to outsiders. Burmese cuisine, he says, is incomplete without tea. Nor can you speak of tea without mentioning the teahouse. Recent years have seen newer, modern versions of it. In the capital city, The Rangoon Tea House menu reveals a diverse and multicultural community, where alu bhaji and samosa sit alongside dim sums, bao buns and noodles, where milk tea is enjoyed as much as green tea. 

Burmese tea history is likely old, like Assam’s. The main region for cultivation is Shan state, bordering China and Thailand. And although laphet still dominates, Gupta says a speciality tea movement is brewing, with white teas and oolong, the pu-erh style tea, even red tea, made in Shan’s Pindaya region from wild tea trees. 

Tea Takes: If visiting Myanmar, Gupta recommends the Feel and Rangoon Tea House in Yangon and Unique Mandalay Tea Room in Mandalay. If armchair travel beckons, Burma Burma serves a range of teas with snacks to go with these.    

Tea Nanny is a fortnightly series steeped in the world of tea. Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry. She tweets @AravindaAnanth1.

Also read | Travel for tea

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