Roadside teashop in Mandalay

When you think of Burma (now known as Myanmar), you think of Aung San Suu Kyi and the lack of democracy or human rights. You don’t usually associate the country with tea, even though teatime in Burma plays a big part in the day-to-day lives of its citizens. Here are some observations on the tea culture in Burma, which I believe is one of its best-kept secrets.

For a start, the Burmese categorize teas into two groups: green tea – or Chinese tea, as they call it – and black tea, which is popularly known as sweet tea. Sweet tea is essentially tea with condensed milk and sugar, just like the Teh Tarik in Malaysia and Singapore, except it is a more potent brew.

Teashops, which can be found on almost every street corner, are frequented by locals throughout the day. The main draw is sweet tea, although unlike the Chinese, or green, tea, which is free, sweet tea must be paid for. The Chinese tea, on the other hand, is stored in large thermo flasks that are placed on every table; patrons drink the tea in small Chinese porcelain cups, which can be refilled.

Green tea and sweet tea at a teashop in Mandalay

Demand for sweet tea was brisk during one of my afternoon sessions at a local teashop in Mandalay. People came and went in quick succession. Some, of course, stayed longer to read the daily papers, while others preferred to spend their lazy afternoon watching the world go by.

It was then that I noticed how much tea an average Burmese drinks. At least three cups of tea are taken in one sitting: one cup of green tea while waiting for the sweet tea to arrive and another cup, or more, after the sweet tea is consumed. Boy, the Burmese can really drink a lot of tea!

It remains a mystery to me how these teahouses manage to turn a profit with such generous offers of free green tea! Perhaps much has to do with the fact that Burma is a tea-producing nation and most of its tea is green tea. Green tea plantations are found in Namshan and Nampan within the Shan state bordering China.

Green tea (in thermo flask), Laphet Thote, and some Burmese candy

The Burmese love for tea, however, does not end here. Not contented with tea as just a beverage, the Burmese eat tea in the form of salads. Known as Laphet Thote, pickled tea leaves can either be served as an appetizer when mixed with peanuts, garlic, and chiles, or as a dessert.

This extremely popular dish can be seen almost everywhere and is unique to Burma. According to state statistics in 2006-2007, the eaten form of tea accounted for around 20% of Burma’s total consumption of tea.

I am sure much more can be said about the Burmese tea culture, but sadly the literature on it is scarce. Let’s hope as the country slowly opens up its doors to the outside world, much more information will be available on this beautiful country, its people, and, of course, its unique tea culture.

This post first appeared on T-Ching on November 16, 2012.