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."