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L.A. is Catching on to Burmese Tea Salad (Lahpet Thoke)

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All photos: Camellia Tse
All photos: Camellia Tse

Get the recipe for Burmese Tea Salad (Lahpet Thoke) here.

Myanmar -- or Burma, as some still call it -- might be the Asian country that most of us know the least about, due in part to decades-long military dictatorships, political repression, and its subsequent isolation. Situated at the crossroads of India, Bangladesh, China, Thailand and Laos, there are 135 ethnic groups in Myanmar, many with their own dialects, cultures, and variations on cuisine. Though the Burmese population in the greater Los Angeles area is small -- the 2010 Census estimated a little over 5,000 people -- there are now more Burmese living here than anywhere else in the U.S.

Ask most people to name a Burmese dish and -- if familiar with the cuisine at all -- they'll likely respond with "Burmese tea salad," otherwise known as lahpet thoke (pronounced lah-pay-toh). This fermented tea leaf salad has been popularized by the Bay Area's ever-expanding Burma Superstar, and is starting to pop up on the menus of trendier fusion restaurants here in L.A. And yet, of the few hole-in-the-wall Burmese restaurants that exist here, only Yoma, Daw Yee Myanmar and Rangoon Kitchen in the San Gabriel Valley serve this national dish -- a scarcity that may reflect the heterogeneity of the cuisine. Or, as Myanmar Gazette's Editor-in-Chief Thakhin Brow surmises, it may speak to many Burmese expats foregoing eating in restaurants in favor of their local temples and churches, where food is an integral part of the communal experience.

Lahpet thoke holds deep cultural significance within Burmese cuisine. It was traditionally served as a peace offering to settle disputes between warring kingdoms, and at the conclusion of civil court cases to symbolize resolution of a verdict. It can now be found everywhere in Myanmar -- from the stalls of street vendors to high-end cafes and restaurants -- as a staple of the Burmese diet, even as it shares billing with the plethora of cuisines influenced by the country's many ethnic groups.

After countless visits to Monterey Park for this addictive salad, I had the opportunity to sit down with Zgyung Lam, owner of Yoma, and pieced together her immigrant story while she shared her recipe for Burmese tea salad.

Like many Burmese expats, Zgyung witnessed up close the ongoing persecution and violence against other Christian Kachins by the Myanmar Armed Forces. Determined not to fall victim herself after graduating from university, she left her home city of Lashio in the Northern Shan State and emigrated to the U.S. in 2005 when early waves of Burmese refugees began to arrive.

Zgyung recalls the rest of the story as nothing short of a miracle. Uncertain about what to do, she worked for the previous proprietor of Yoma for a few months before taking over the business in 2006. Though she had no previous restaurant -- or even cooking -- experience, family and friends came forward, contributing funds and personal recipes. For Zgyung, it was a clear directive to create an extended kitchen for the community, where Burmese expats could come together over the familiar flavors of home. Now, almost nine years later, she's become something of a culinary ambassador, capturing in one place much of the ethnic and culinary variety that defines the cuisine of contemporary Myanmar.


Lahpet Thoke

Much of the Burmese tea leaf harvest is cultivated within the Shan state, where choice spring leaves are set aside for fermentation. While the ceremonial variant, a-hlu lahpet, is presented in a sectional lacquer tray for honored guests to handpick different ingredients according to taste, lahpet thoke comes premixed and typically at the end of a meal.

Depending upon varying degrees of authenticity, Burmese tea salad can be a potent mix of flavors and textures with ingredients like fermented tea leaves, fish sauce, vinegar, shrimp powder, fried and raw garlic, chilies, and crunchy elements. Admittedly it might not be for the faint of heart, but there's a reason why lahpet thoke has gained such an enthusiastic following.

For the real deal, head to Monterey Park for Zgyung's lahpet thoke at Yoma, which can even be made vegan by request. Zgyung has shared her signature recipe here, but you'll definitely want to try her version first before attempting this at home.

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