Once upon a time I was a hopeful adjunct yearning for my dream job, being a full-time community college professor. It would take years of hustling, networking, and overworking before that dream would become a reality. Along the way, I worked with and became friends with some fantastic people who supported me and encouraged me in my quest.
One afternoon, one of these friends suggested that we go out for dinner. She wanted to know if I had ever been to a Burmese restaurant located in Gaithersburg. We are lucky to live just outside Washington DC in a super diverse area with restaurants and grocery shops to match, but I had never tried Burmese food.
“Sure!” I said, ever eager for a new culinary adventure and information about our world. I searched my brain for what I knew about Myanmar and only came up with: its former name of Burma under British colonial rule…pythons…cats… and the plight of Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. The food was a complete blank.
This spirit of openness and embrace for global cultures was instilled in me by my older brother, Jim, who had a talent for languages, a passion for travel, and friends from all around the world. Thanks to him, my first job was at a Chinese takeout owned by his friends from Malaysia; we would make monthly excursions to Montgomery County to shop at Asian markets and a travel bookstore; and I would dance with him, Bollywood style, the only 2 non-Asians at an Indian house party. Not too bad for a couple of kids from Frederick in the 90’s when it was a largely homogenous community.
So when I say yes to travel and yes to trying new things, it’s not only because those things are in my wheelhouse but also to pay homage to my brother who died far too soon. I get on planes, sleep in hotels, and try new things to keep his spirit alive in the best possible tribute. I also believe these actions of savoring and experiencing other cultures are necessary in today’s conflict-rife world to build respect and appreciation for others. I know it’s the world my brother would have wanted to see if he were still alive today, even though he’d probably be experiencing it in India or Hong Kong. And these are all lessons I pass onto my daughters.
Once at the restaurant and looking at the menu I saw ingredients that were familiar but served in unusual combinations: tofu made with chickpeas, tea leaves in salads, and samusas rather than samosas. I don’t remember if my friend tried to describe the flavors of Burmese food or not, but a look at Myanmar on a map will give you a good idea.
The flavors are complex combinations of the spices and textures that you find in Indian, Thai, and Chinese food. The flavors simultaneously urge you to eat more while the ingredients leave you feeling satisfied, not stuffed, even if you overindulge.
I enjoyed my first experience with Burmese food so much, that since-closed restaurant became a date night favorite for my husband and me. We’d order lots of little dishes so we could appreciate more fully the artistry of this complex cuisine. And, bonus, the menu was both vegan (him) and omnivore (me) -friendly. He loved the spicy chickpea tofu and I loved the lima beans with crispy garlic but our absolute favorite was the pickled tea leaf salad, full of crunch and sour herbaceous flavor, unlike anything we’d tasted before.
In the meantime, I finally landed a full-time professor job. One afternoon, at a potluck being held at our campus writing center, I spied a bowl of tea leaf salad. At first I thought I was having a really great dream or hopeful hallucination and then I discovered that one of the work-study students had family from Myanmar. Upon further conversation, I learned that Frederick has a huge Burmese community, something that would have been unimaginable to my brother and me 20 years before. What a world we live in now! Anyway, I was curious about how to make such a magical dish and she shared that the easiest way is to buy a tea lea salad kit from an Asian market stocked with Myanmar foods.
In the meantime, we discovered another Burmese restaurant in Silver Spring that is just as delicious as the first one and with a larger menu. It was there we went when my friend and her cousin visited from out of town and they wanted to shop at Lotte market and try Burmese food. We ordered numerous items off the menu and shared them all, murmuring our appreciation and urging each other to try bites of dishes. Of course, the tea leaf salad was on the table and it was one of the highlights for us all. My friend returned home to Louisiana and her cousin to Florida, with happy memories of a new to them cuisine and suitcases full of Asian ingredients.
Happily, my favorite local Asian market has now started carrying groceries from Myanmar. I was so excited when I saw the new sign, I had to snap a picture of it and text it to my friend in Louisiana.
And you can guarantee that I put a tea leaf salad kit in my cart. Though you can make a tea leaf salad from scratch (I can’t say I am patient enough for that), the kits make it faster and more convenient. They basically contain the fermented tea leaves and the crunchy toppings; you just need to choose a leafy base of some sort and add some tomatoes if you like. I decided to use cabbage to maintain the crunch.
When I try a new food, I like to do some research to ensure some degree of authenticity and also to learn about other cultures. We can learn so much about other people from what they eat and how if we just take the time to taste and learn. In Myanmar, tea is not only drank but also eaten. When tea is harvested, the best tea leaves are reserved for salad, not drinking. Tea leaf salad or Lahpet Thoke is the most loved snack in Myanmar. If you are invited to someone’s home, you will most likely be offered this dish and it is an integral part of important ceremonies. In ancient times, this salad was served as part of a truce between warring factions. Since the ingredients were served stacked in piles on a platter rather than premixed, it allowed people to prepare their salads as they preferred. What a gesture–incurring peace through salad! I know my brother would also approve.
One half head green cabbage, thinly sliced or shredded
Handful of grape tomatoes, coarsely chopped
One tea leaf salad kit
One lemon, juiced
Optional: green chiles, thinly sliced
1. Peel the outer wilted leaves from the cabbage and discard. Cut the cabbage in half and in half again and cut out the core and discard. Put half the cabbage away for another use. Either shred the half cabbage using the coarse side of a box grater or slice it thinly. Place the cabbage in a large bowl.
2. Chop the tomatoes coarsely and add to the bowl, mixing in with the cabbage.
3. Open the tea leaf kit and remove the ingredient pouches. Tilt the tea leaf pouch so the juices go to the bottom. Cut the tea leaf pouch open and dump the tea leaves into the salad bowl and mix with your hands or a fork, breaking apart the clumps so they are evenly mixed with the cabbage and tomatoes.
4. Cut the crunchy topping pouch open and pour into the salad, stirring it till well mixed. Taste the salad, and add salt and lemon juice as needed. Add the sliced chiles, if using.
5. Enjoy immediately to maintain its crunchiness.
Tea leaf salad kits are available in regular and hot and sour options. I chose the hot and sour this time but will give the regular version a try in the future. Here are the ingredients, in case you are curious (lephet means tea).
Have you ever tried the amazingness that is Burmese food? Let me know what you think in the comments.