In Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), the most popular form of tea isn't drunk — it's eaten. It's called lahpet, or pickled tea, and it forms an essential part of not only the country's cuisine, but also its cultural values.
On the origins of pickled tea, we know only this: back in ancient times, pickled tea was formally known as a peace offering among the numerous warring kingdoms that existed — it was offered from one party to another when a conflict was resolved. Its peaceful underpinnings are still very much a part of pickled tea consumption today; in fact, lahpet is considered one of Burma's national dishes — ubiquitous at any social gathering, and a universal symbol of welcoming.
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What is Pickled Tea?
Pickled tea is pretty much exactly what it sounds like — tea leaves that have been fermented to change and enhance the flavor. According to Jocelyn Lee, co-owner of the hit San Francisco restaurants, Burma Love, Burma Supertsar, and B*Star, the traditional method for making pickled tea involves harvesting the young buds of the tea plant, packing them in bamboo, bringing them to a riverside, and burying the bamboo parcel for a long period of time. This process is slightly different now, though the general principles are the same: the buds get steamed (to release the tea's juices, which will serve as the pickling liquid), then placed in large vats with a heavy lid, and finally, buried. The tea will ferment anywhere from three to six months (as with any other pickle, the exact amount of time affects the pungency of the end result). What is interesting about this particular process, Lee says, is that there is nothing else added into the mix except the tea leaves — "no vinegars, no starter agents, it just ferments upon itself," she says, lending pickled tea its most distinct flavor. It's hard to describe the very unique complexities of the taste of pickled tea — Lee uses words like "musty," "dry," "olive-y," and "similar to a grape leaf." She concludes, "It's deep and heavy, but it has a lightness to it — there's no specific flavor, really, that you can connect it with."
Lee also points out one of the most important facets of making lahpet: time. There is no such thing as a quick pickle or a shortcut. "It's a pretty traditional process," she says. "It's the way things have always been done. We never try to speed it up by adding certain things, or changing the method."
Pickled Tea in Burmese Cuisine
Pickled tea serves a very specific purpose in Burmese cuisine — as the star ingredient of the classic dish, tea leaf salad. The dish consists of little parts — lahpet, lentils, chilies, tomatoes, sesame seeds, peanuts (to name a few options) — served in a special lacquered tray that has compartments for each ingredient. To eat it, "you just make your own bite" according to your tastes, either in your hands or in a bowl, Lee says.
In Burmese schools, students will make a more granola-like version of the tea leaf salad, with just lahpet, peanuts, and seeds, as the leaves are loaded with caffeine to help keep one awake during long nights studying.
There are a few variations on these preparations — like adding rice — but according to Lee, lahpet exists almost exclusively for tea leaf salad.
The Culture of Hospitality
Pickled tea is rooted in the Burmese sense of hospitality, and is a centerpiece of most ceremonies — whether you are at a temple or at someone's home, being presented with a tea leaf salad is standard practice. The process of serving the salad with the different compartments is very ritualistic, Lee says, as it is consumed communally and functions as a gesture of conviviality.
The tea ultimately speaks to the warmth, and "certain kind of openness that's weaved into society — something that the people have been doing for a long time," Lee says. "You know what?" she continues. "I actually have a story that perfectly describes what I'm talking about."
She goes on to tell me about when she and her sister were last in Burma, and stopped at a roadside store to use the restroom: "My sister went inside first, and I was waiting outside, and the owner had brought a tea leaf salad for me. I thought, Maybe my sister ordered this? Is this a restaurant? But it wasn't. We were at his house, and that is just how guests are treated, without question. They don't do it for any reason apart from the fact that they want to welcome you. That's just how things are."