Tea has been a major part of the culture in Myanmar for a very long time. In fact, Myanmar is perhaps the only country in the world that has a tradition of both eating and drinking tea!
The origins of tea are traced back to northern Myanmar and southern China, including the Yunnan and Sichuan provinces, bordering Myanmar. Along with the ever-present dish of mohinga, lahpet thoke (otherwise known as Myanmar tea leaf salad) is one of the most well known and popular dishes in Burmese cuisine. As you can maybe tell from its name, of all the ingredients in the dish, tea leaves – which are preserved by pickling and are slightly fermented – are the most fundamental ingredient.
You can find laphet thoke virtually anywhere in Mandalay, but especially at sit down restaurants, roadside cafés, and simple street food stalls. Zegyo Market and Kai Tan Market are two tourist hotspots within the city centre and all sorts of food can be found here. As street food sold within these markets, laphet thoke is hard to find as a foreigner (even if you know it’s gotta be there somewhere), as a salad is not going to jump out at you – either by sight or smell! What you need to look for is a bunch of plastic tubs at the stall, which is an indicator that they are serving a variety of Burmese salads – including hopefully laphet thoke. Lunchtimes are particularly popular for consumption of this salad, as locals take refuge with some cool food from the searing midday sun.
Aside from the pickled tea leaves, the main ingredients in most plates of lahpet thoke include slices of tomato, shaved cabbage, fried peas, roasted peanuts, sesame seeds, ginger, and garlic. The dressing is oil based, usually peanut oil, combined with a bit of fish sauce and lime juice. From time to time, I do like a good salad, as long as I know its safe to eat, and in Mandalay – while not 100% hygienic – there has been a lot of improvement in food safety over the past few years, and I was even watching the street vendor prepare my salad with disposable latex gloves! I wonder if that’s just because I was a foreigner? And in case you’re wondering – yep, the laphet thoke was delicious!
For breakfast in Mandalay, I usually ate mohinga, lunchtimes where possible I hunted down laphet thoke, and for dinner my meal of choice would be the Mandalay variant of mont di noodles. It’s just a shame that truly authentic Mandalay cuisine cannot be found outside of Mandalay. Still, it gives me another reason to come back…