Well, here we are, three years after I started this blog, and I am finally getting around to posting the recipe for which it is named. Better late than never, right? Pickled tea leaves are a favorite of mine, and I think there is nothing like them in the world. I am a bit at a loss to describe them adequately. They have the flavor of green tea, with the flavor of fermentation; they are slightly bitter, slightly salty, and they leave a bit of a tangy aftertaste on the tongue for a few moments. And they provide a nice caffeine boost, too!
I am glad I waited a while to write this recipe (and even now I post with fear and trembling, because I am sure there are people on the internet who know more about pickled tea leaves and how best to use them than I do), because I know a bit more than I did when I first moved here three years ago.
I love pickled tea leaves, and have always found them easy to love. That feeling is not universal, I realized, when I tried to serve it to American friends and was subsequently dismayed by their undisguised disgust. However, I found a balm for my wounds in a handful of compatriots who do not live in Myanmar at all, but liked pickled tea leaves from the first, nonetheless. If you would not describe yourself as having an adventurous palate, pickled tea leaves probably aren’t for you.
Lahpet (or pickled tea leaves, as they’re known in English), is a food that is unique to Myanmar. There are a lot of varieties of pickled tea leaves, and preferences for taste and style vary by region within Myanmar. My favorite style is what we might call “pureed” in English, in the spoon on the right in the photo below. According to my sources, this kind is made using young tea leaves. Another variety (seen below on the left) is made using whole tea leaves that were mature at the time of harvest. The result is a more bitter-tasting pickled tea leaf. If you are interested in learning more about the fermentation process, you can read about it here in this interesting research paper.
Once the tea leaves have undergone the fermentation process, various other flavors are added in, such as dried or fresh chilis, and garlic. Myanmar folks can buy serving size packs of pickled tea leaves at just about any neighborhood snack or dry goods shop. It is really common for folks to purchase some pickled tea leaves and fried nuts, and mix it in with some leftover white rice for a quick and flavorful meal at the end of the day.
This recipe, then, is one variation of that meal. There are a lot of ways to prepare the dish; one home or restaurant will use different ratios of tea leaves to veggies than another (kind of like you might expect with fresh salsas in the U.S.; they all go by the same name, but vary in flavor), some will add dried shrimp. While the pickled tea leaves are the star of the show, the dish is made complete with the addition of deep fried beans/nuts. At the cheaper teashops, cooks skimp on the tea leaves when they mix this dish, and the flavor is disappointing. At nicer rice shops, or in a home, I’ve enjoyed the best versions of pickled tea leaf rice, and the recipe below is my attempt to inscribe my favorite variety of pickled tea leaf rice, or as it is known here in Myanmar, lahpet tamen.
(Most of the ingredients should be easy to obtain, though I am not sure where a person can find pickled tea leaves in North America.)
Pickled Tea Leaf Rice | Recipe
(Serves 3 hearty rice eaters, or 5-6 Americans…)
6 cups of cooked rice
¼ cup of pickled tea leaves/pickled tea leaf puree
2 tablespoons roasted chickpea flour
3 tablespoons sesame seeds
2 tsp salt
¼ cup vegetable oil
2 tsp chicken broth powder, optional
4 roma tomatoes, thinly sliced or julienned
2-3 cups finely shredded green cabbage
2 limes or roughly 2 tablespoons of lime juice
¾ cup of fried nuts/beans (if you cannot find fried nuts, roasted peanuts are the next best option)
eggs, to be fried and served with the rice, if desired
(above are fried chickpeas; they add a salty crunch to the dish, and are an essential component of an authentic plate of pickled tea leaf rice)
The bulk of the work for this recipe goes into slicing the tomatoes and cabbage, and cooking the rice. Once those things are done, the recipe comes together quickly.
When we prepare this at home, we combine the veggies, the nuts, and the lime juice with the rice right before serving, otherwise the nuts become soggy and the flavors are not as fresh. Pickled tea leaf rice is best eaten soon after it is prepared. It’s safe to eat it hours after it has been prepared, but it is not nearly as tasty. My method of making this dish in steps is largely informed by life with small kids, so if you are able to prepare the whole dish in one shot and then sit to eat, by all means, do so!
Here is our method:
- In a large bowl, combine all the ingredients from Part One. They can be prepared ahead and sit together on the counter until you are ready to eat. Often we mix it by hand to ensure that everything is thoroughly combined. Having a large bowl for mixing makes things easier.
- When it’s nearly eating time, mix in the vegetables and give the rice a taste. If the flavors are not to your liking, adjust and add more salt or lime juice or tea leaves as needed. Once you are satisfied, add in the fried (or roasted) nuts.
- Plate the rice, then fry the egg(s) to your liking, place them atop the rice and serve. (I didn’t used to be a runny egg yolk kind of girl, but I’ve learned that a runny egg yolk is really delicious mixed in with a serving of rice.)
In restaurants/tea shops each serving of pickled tea leaf rice is accompanied by small saucer of fresh garlic and green chilis. Folks add the chilis and cloves of garlic to their rice and mix it in. If you like more heat and you enjoy the taste of fresh garlic, be sure to have fresh chili and garlic on hand and try it out!
This recipe would not be complete without mentioning my friend, K.K., who is the cooking genius behind most of the Burmese dishes you see here. She is an amazing cook, and a gracious teacher to me, not only in the realms of cooking, but also when it comes to Myanmar language and culture. I am really thankful to have her in my life (and not only because she makes delicious food!). Maybe one day K.K. and I will be able to make our food writing dreams come true and co-author a Myanmar food cookbook, but till then, I’ll try to keep putting new recipes here whenever I get time. Thanks for reading and following along!