I first visited Myanmar in 2013, and one of the first dishes I tried was called lahpet tho (click for image) or what speakers of English would call pickled tea leaf salad. I loved it, and ate plenty of it.
There are a variety of ways in which lahpet tho is served, but it is almost always brought to the table at the end of a meal. It will come on a neat little plate with separate piles of roasted peanuts, fried beans, chopped green or red tomatoes, roasted sesame seeds, fried garlic, and of course, the crown jewel: a nice cluster of fermented tea leaves. There will be a tiny spoon on the edge of the plate, and all who are dining can scoop from the different piles to make their preferred combination of flavors. There are a variety of other greens that accompany this plate, my favorite being chopped cabbage and cilantro; they add a nice texture, and soften the strong flavor of the tea leaves. The requisite tomatoes in this dish add a perfect level of acidity and for those who like crunch, the peanuts and fried beans are essential. Lahpet tho is one of the most unique things I’ve eaten in Myanmar; there is something floral and fermented about it all at once, and with the fresh vegetables added in, it can be a wonderful combination of fresh and aged food. (A fun fact: a shared dish of lahpet tho was at one time an ancient symbol of a peace agreement between rival kingdoms.)
While Jim and I prepared to return to Myanmar, I decided that food blogging could be a great language learning project, and as I thought of titles, I couldn’t forget my previous good experiences eating laphet tho, aka pickled tea leaf salad. A month before we left for Myanmar, I purchased the domain name and began preparing for my food blogging endeavors.
So now you know a little bit about the background behind this blog’s eccentric name. The question remains: why has the author not made it a goal to inscribe Lahpet Tho/Pickled Tea Leaf Salad as the inaugural recipe on this blog? Isn’t something missing?
An excellent question. And were the circumstances of my life different, I may perhaps blush to give an honest answer. As it is, I have no shame in telling you my reason.
Within a week of arriving in Myanmar, I delved into a serving of rice and pickled tea leaves. This was hardly a risky gastronomic decision, but for some reason, it turned out to be disastrous in my case. Four hours after eating, I woke up in abdominal agony. One week later, my digestive system still wouldn’t forgive me, and I had to resort to a pregnancy safe drug to help keep food down. Two weeks later I was still incredibly fatigued from fighting off the food poisoning, and I now have the memory of those fateful bites of tea leaf seared into my mind.
As I write this, I’m nearing the three month anniversary of my arrival in Myanmar. I think one of the challenges of moving to a new culture is that you realize how your digestive health is integral to your ability to function on any other level. Out of the past three months, I’ve spent about 6 weeks with my stomach teetering on the edge of calm (sometimes already over the precipice and tumbling to choppy waters below). With every good week that passes, I feel my courage rising in regard to my fermented friends. I plan to invite them into my diet again, but I’m taking my time about it. I do promise you, though, that when I do, you will be the first to know.