What ingredients are needed to prepare a plate of lahpet thoke, commonly known as the Burmese pickled tea leaf salad? From any online photo, one can easily identify peanuts, shredded cabbage or lettuce, diced tomatoes, some dried peas and beans, maybe sesame too. Recipes must be consulted to ferment the tea leaves and blend the dressing.
Ethnic cuisines are most accessible in Los Angeles, one of Planet Earth’s few cosmopolitan cities. Burma being my top travel destination, I thought I would enjoy authentic lahpet thoke during my next Southeast Asia vacation. However, the recent Rohingya crisis and Aung San Suu Kyi’s apathy flustered me. I scheduled to dine at a local Burmese eatery, subconsciously hoping to interact with Burmese immigrants and to learn more about the nation’s plight.
My brother was my last-minute dining companion that day when I savored Burmese cuisine for the very first time at the family-run Yoma Myanmar. We ordered the tea leaf salad before we examined the menu, and the guests at the next table did exactly the same. Our gregarious server might be the proprietress, to whom I simply could not mention Rohingya, not only because she was busy, and not only because it was impolite to talk politics at such social setting, but also because the dining space’s harmonious, unassuming milieu must not be disturbed.
I found the tea leaf salad’s aroma peculiar but really enjoyed its unique savory flavor and texture dominated by peanuts’ and fried peas’ crunchiness and fermented tea leaves’ chewiness. My brother separated and discarded all the tea leaves, which some just couldn’t imagine themselves swallowing.
Those of us who are multi-lingual know that some Wikipedia pages in different languages contain completely different information. One example is the French play “The Blue Bird.” The version I remember recounts the journey of two children who venture far in quest of the blue bird and finally discover it inside a nest under their humble dwelling’s eaves. My Burmese dining experience reminded me of this fairy tale.