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Vegan Planet: Burmese Tea Leaf Salad

Tuesday, January 19, 2010


Burmese Tea Leaf Salad

I never thought I could be enchanted by a salad, but from my first bite of Burmese tea leaf salad, I was under its spell. This addictive salad has it all: good looks, great taste, fabulous textures, and, due to the high concentration of caffeine, it also has an incomparable “energizing” after-effect that can have you bouncing off the walls, depending on your caffeine tolerance.

After my first encounter, I knew I’d need to make it at home, since the nearest Burmese restaurant is, well, not very near. However, the main ingredient proved difficult to find. The Asian market I shop in doesn’t carry fermented tea leaves, so I asked my friend in Philadelphia to try her bigger/better store. Still no luck. I finally tracked down the elusive tea leaves online and ordered them from a source in New York. Within a few days, they were delivered to my door.

If you order the salad in a Burmese restaurant, chances are it will look much like the one in my photo (I’m a sucker for composed salads anyway, and this one is as composed as it gets.) In a restaurant, the server may bring it to your table and then mix it for you tableside, ala Caesar-salad style, with the fermented tea leaves (in the center of the salad) being tossed with the other ingredients.

You can find the recipe for this amazing salad (and more info about Burmese cooking) in my Global Vegan column in the current (January/February) issue of VegNews Magazine.

By the way, if you don’t tolerate caffeine well, you’ll be happy to know that the tea leaf salad has a close cousin that can be made with pickled ginger in place of the fermented tea leaf mixture. The ginger salad is equally beautiful and delicious as the tea leaf salad, but without the caffeine kick. Anyone who ever thought salads were boring needs to try one of these!

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My boyfriend is Burmese - that is how I encountered the salad. And I fully agree - this salad is out of this world.
I get the leaves when I visit his family, I have not yet found a source around here.
I never arranged as beautifully as you though - I have to try that next time I do it for friends
This looks delicious. I actually think we don't focus on salads enough! I know it's frustrating when the only thing we can eat at many restaurants is a bowl of mixed greens with olive and vinegar on the side, but when I'm at home, I'm often most satisfied by a BIG salad, filled with spinach, potatoes, pine nuts, avocado, grilled veggies... I could go on & on! Thanks for the post - I'm going to try this one!
This salad is something new for me. I never saw this in any restaurant. It really looks delish.
That is one of the most symmetrical salads I've ever seen - bravo!

I can't help giggling because I don't tolerate caffeine well, so got excited when you had an alternative option. Then I remembered I don't like pickled ginger... So now I'm planning to keep an eye out for your recipe but substitue something like sauerkraut! :P
This recipe sound great! I have your vegan cookbooks and really enjoy preparing the ethnic cuisine recipes.

Check my vegan world travel advice blog site:
Thanks everyone for your great comments on this unusual salad.

Hannah, I think I'd opt for something other than saurkraut. How about substituting some shredded cucumber mixed with a little sesame oil and rice vinegar? That should get you where you want to go with this salad and still keep the Asian flavors.
Dear Robin, I don't know how free you are, but you may need to get in touch with a real typical Burmese family (not those rich immigrant Burmese, but get the real ugly looking upper Burman Burmese) here in the US and find out how this pickled tea leave salad is eaten. As well as there are many styles of preparing this. A restaurant style, different mixture, dried prawn, lots of hot green pepper, and the type of oil you use, so you can imagine all different flavors. Restaurant style again is , just eaten it as an appetizer, but you need to wash the tongue and the throat after every spoon with a hot green tea (better yet, get the real green tea leave that comes from the Shan State, Burma). You do not eat this salad like westerners do, just gulp down in one shot. You need to slowly chew and taste the different ingredients, and also as the whole.

The home style tea leave salad preparation is entirely different again, with shaved cabbage (as thin as you can get, using a razor sharp knife) and semi ripe tomato.

Then, the weather plays a role , you do not eat in the freezing weather. It is usually eaten during the long lazy sultry summer afternoon out on the shady deck. Ahhh yes, with white rice which is cooked earlier in the morning (usually the left over from lunch). You do not eat with hot out of the pot, white rice. The flavor comes out with the cold(not from the refrigerator) left over rice.

Finally, you finish this late lunch with Chai Tea (but you need to prepare at you kitchen, from Brooke Bond or Ceylon tea with evaporated milk).

You mentioned you mail ordered it from New York--I've been [I thought!] all over New York and never was able to find any lephet. Could you possibly tell us any more information on where to order this?
[Sadly, the place I used to go to eat the salad has closed...]
Hi Karen,
Here's the link to the place I ordered it from:

It's not in English, so you have to take your best guess as to which tea leaves you want, but as long as you order something that says "lephet" you should be okay.
I would love to open a little place for tea leave salad only, what do u all think? I promise that it will be real burmese style.
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