This week on Good Food, Evan talks with Naomi Duguid about her book Burma: Rivers of Flavor, which made Evan’s list of top 2012 cookbooks. Burmese cuisine draws from the many countries that surround it – India, China, Thailand, Laos and Bangladesh.
In this outtake, Duguid shares the ways the Burmese and the northern Thai eat tea.
Read below for Duguid’s Burmese Tea-Leaf Salad recipe. It uses shrimp, peanuts, soybeans, and sesame seeds, and it’s often eaten at the end of the meal, as a digestive.
Burmese Tea-Leaf Salad
(From Burma: Rivers of Flavor by Naomi Duguid. Artisan Books. Copyright © 2012.)
Serves 6 as a snack
This salad is often called Burma’s national dish. Laphet is the word for “green tea” and thoke means “salad” (it’s pronounced “la-pay toe”). It’s a dazzling combination of fermented tea leaves, soft-textured and a little acid and astringent, with other tastes and textures: crisp, roasted peanuts and other crunchy beans, toasted sesame seeds, dried shrimp, and fried garlic. It may come to the table already mixed (and including a little chopped tomato) or, more often, be served with all the ingredients in separate piles so that guests can pick up their own combination of flavors and textures each time they reach for a handful. Laphet thoke is traditionally served as a final taste at the end of the meal, much like sweetened whole spices may be served at the end of a north Indian meal, or tea or coffee at the end of a Western meal.
Packages of prepared laphet thoke ingredients—the tea leaves and all the other flavorings—are sold everywhere in Burma. Burmese who live abroad buy stacks of the packages when they return on visits to take back with them. In other words, finding fermented tea leaves outside Burma and northern Thailand can be a problem. So, although the tea leaves are sometimes available in North America (you can order them online from a New York–based company called Minthila), they’re often hard to get. This recipe is here as an act of optimism, in the hope that fermented tea leaves will soon become more widely available.
If you are starting with unprocessed fermented tea leaves, then start preparing them several hours or as long as the night before you wish to serve the salad: they need to be soaked in water to remove their strongest tart and bitter edge.
About 3/4 cup packed fermented tea leaves, rinsed and coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons Toasted Sesame Seeds, lightly ground (see below)
2 to 3 tablespoons roasted peanuts, whole or coarsely chopped (see below)
2 to 3 tablespoons fried split roasted soybeans
1/2 cup thin tomato wedges (optional)
2 tablespoons dried shrimp, soaked in water for 10 minutes and drained
1 cup shredded green cabbage or Napa cabbage (optional)
1 to 2 tablespoons Garlic Oil (see below)
1 to 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 teaspoon soy sauce or fish sauce
Pinch of salt
At least 6 hours before you wish to serve the salad, place the tea leaves in lukewarm water and mash with your hands a little. Drain and squeeze out. Repeat, then add cold water and let stand for 1 hour (or as long as overnight). Drain, squeeze thoroughly to remove excess water, and discard any tough bits. Chop finely by hand or in a food processor; set aside.
If serving the salad unmixed, omit the tomato and cabbage. Place small piles of all the ingredients on a platter, or put each ingredient in a small bowl and place the bowls on a platter. Serve the dressing, if using, in a separate small bowl. Put out spoons with each ingredient, or invite guests to use their hands. Invite guests to help themselves as they wish; they can eat two or three of the ingredients together or mix up a combination for themselves on their own plates.
If serving as a mixed salad, combine all the ingredients (except salt) in a bowl. Mix with your hands, separating any clumped tea leaves and the shreds of cabbage to blend everything thoroughly. Add the dressing ingredients and blend thoroughly with your hands. Add salt to taste and adjust other seasonings if you wish.
Shan Tea-Leaf Salad
This salad, called niang ko in Shan language (and yam miang in Thai), is always served mixed together. Traditionally the Shan use fresh tea leaves; immerse them in hot water briefly, then squeeze them out thoroughly, discard any tough patches and leaf veins, and chop them finely. Most of us don’t have access to fresh tea leaves, so use either ½ cup packed fermented tea leaves, processing them as instructed above by repeated soakings, or about 1 cup loosely packed dried green tea leaves. (These work very well, especially leaves with a good green color.) Add the dried tea leaves to hot water, stir, and let soak until very softened, about 10 minutes; then drain, pick through the leaves, and discard any tough bits
Squeeze out the tea leaves thoroughly, chop finely, and put in a medium bowl. Add about 1 cup finely chopped green cabbage, 1 loosely packed cup mixed chopped coriander and scallion greens, and 2 tablespoons finely chopped ginger (preferably young ginger). Mix together thoroughly and set aside.
Fry 1/4 cup sliced garlic in 2 to 3 tablespoons peanut oil until golden. Set aside. Add 1/4 cup Chopped Roasted Peanuts (page 35) or whole unsalted roasted peanuts, and 2 to 3 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds; toss. If you started with dried or fresh tea leaves, add about 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice, to give a sour note. Pour over the reserved garlic and oil. Mix and blend some more, add 1/2 teaspoon salt, mix again, taste and adjust if needed, and serve.
Toasted Sesame Seeds
Toasting sesame seeds is like roasting peanuts, except that the process is very quick. Make sure your sesame seeds are fresh; taste them before you use them. Set a cast-iron or other heavy skillet over medium heat. Add the sesame seeds and let them heat, shaking the skillet from time to time to ensure that they aren’t scorching; or use a wooden spoon to stir them. After a few minutes, you will start to smell their lovely aroma; keep stirring so they don’t scorch. Cook for another minute or two, until they are lightly touched with gold. Transfer to a wide bowl and let cool completely. Store, once completely cooled, in a clean, dry glass jar.
Chopped Roasted Peanuts
Makes a scant 1 cup
These are handy to have when you are making Burmese salads, so it’s worth making a cupful or more at a time and storing them in a jar. Buy raw peanuts (in their papery skins or not, it doesn’t matter)—you’ll find them in Asian groceries and health food stores.
1 cup raw peanuts, with or without their papery skin
Place a cast-iron or other heavy skillet over medium heat, add the peanuts, and cook, stirring them frequently with a wooden spoon or spatula to prevent burning. Adjust the heat if necessary so they toast and change color gradually, in patches; as they heat up, the skins, if still on, will separate from the peanuts. When they have firmed up a little and are dotted with color, remove from the heat, but keep stirring for another minute or so.
If using skin-on nuts, carry the skillet over to a sink or a garbage can and blow over it gently to blow away the loose skins. Rub the nuts between your palms to loosen the remaining skins and blow again; don’t worry if there are still some skins on your peanuts. Pick out and discard any nuts that are scorched and blackened.
Transfer the nuts to a wide bowl and set aside for 10 minutes or more to cool and firm up.
Once the peanuts are cool, place them in a food processor and process in short, sharp pulses, stopping after three or four pulses, before the nuts are too finely ground. You want a mix of coarsely chopped nuts and some fine powder. Alternatively, place the nuts in a large stone or terra-cotta mortar and pound with the pestle to crush them into smaller pieces. Use a spoon to move the nuts around occasionally; you don’t want to pound them into a paste, just to break them into small chips.
Transfer the chopped nuts to a clean, dry jar; do not seal until they have cooled completely. Store in the refrigerator.
Fried Garlic and Garlic Oil
Makes about ¼ cup fried garlic and 1/3 cup garlic oil
You can use a similar technique to make garlic oil, but slice the garlic thicker (a scant 1/4 inch), rather than into thin slices, since it cooks much more quickly than shallots. Heat 1/2 cup peanut oil over medium-high heat, add 1/3 cup or so sliced garlic, and fry over medium heat until just golden, about 5 minutes. Lift out the garlic and set aside to crisp up. Store the oil as above. Fried garlic does not keep as well as fried shallots; refrigerate and use within 5 days.