Salad? Who gets genuinely excited about a salad?
Fear not, my friends, for this is no sad iceberg affair I’m here to talk about today. Much more like a savory trail mix with lettuce than a typical leafy green side dish, Burmese tea leaf salad is truly in a class of its own. As with any good mixed vegetable composition, the mix-ins and goodies are the keys to success, and this particular mixture packs a whole world of flavors and textures into every last bite. Toppings can vary wildly by region and availability, but a few favorite common inclusions are crunchy dried lentils or split peas, fried garlic chips, salted peanuts, sunflower seeds, and/or toasted sesame seeds, which is to say nothing of the more vegetative base of cabbage, tomatoes, and thinly sliced jalapenos. Traditional offerings include dried shrimps or shrimp paste, but any restaurant worth patronizing will graciously omit the sea critters for a fully vegan experience. Arranged in pristine piles and garnished just so, each salad looks almost too pretty to eat. Wise servers must realize this, as their next move will be to deftly swipe the lemon wedges from the perimeter of the plate, squeeze them mercilessly until not an ounce of juice remains, and speedily mix and mash everything together until it’s one ugly, sloppy, and highly delicious mess.
That would be all well and good by itself, but let’s back up for a minute here because I’m purposely overlooking one critical ingredient. Fermented or pickled tea leaves are of course the star of the show. Treasured in Burma and as rare as unicorns anywhere else in the world, they give this salad its characteristic tangy, funky, an indescribably savory taste. Unfortunately, this essential component is a beast to find here in the US. Moreover, dozens of commercial brands have been banned for sale, as there’s the danger of picking up package that includes a chemical dye linked with liver and kidney damage. Although it’s a pretty amazing salad, I wouldn’t hazard the risk of a hospital stay for a few decadent bites!
Craving this incomparable salad outside of a restaurant setting, I must admit that I took a few liberties and considerable shortcuts, but my riff on the classic has a harmony all its own.
Inspired by the tea itself, I was lucky enough to have a particularly flavorful pomegranate green tea at my disposal thanks to a thoughtful sampler package from The Tea Company. Painting with my own unique palate of flavors from that unconventional foundation, it only made sense to include the crunchy, tart arils themselves as one of many flavorful mix-ins. One sample pack wasn’t quite enough to bulk up my leafy base, so a light, refreshing mint green tea joined that blend as well. I only marinated them lightly, rather than fermented them properly for the mandated 6 months (!) required for traditional lahpet. Call it a quick and dirty fix, but the results don’t lie. A quicker, easier, and fresher take on this rarefied delicacy is perhaps just what the doctor ordered. Now I have no fear of accidental food poisoning, nor do I need to suffer the lack of Burmese eateries in my hometown.
Pomegranate Tea Leaf Salad
2 Cups Shredded Cabbage and/or Romaine Lettuce
1/2 Cup Cherry or Grape Tomatoes, Halved
1/3 Cup Roasted, Unsalted Peanuts
1/3 Cup Roughly Chopped Fried Garlic
1/3 Cup Dried Green Peas or Moong Dal
1/3 Cup Pomegranate Arils
1/4 Cup Toasted Black Sesame Seeds
1 Small Jalapeno, Halved, Seeded, and Thinly Sliced
1/2 Lemon, Sliced into Wedges
The tea leaves can be prepared well in advance, so it’s best to tackle that component first and have it ready to go when you are. Simply combine the water, vinegar, both teas, and soy sauce in a microwave-safe dish, and heat for about a minute. Let the tea stand, loosely covered, for 15 – 20 minutes, until the leaves have more or less absorbed all of the liquid. Mix in the sesame oil and let stand at room temperature for an additional 5 – 10 minutes to soak in. You can use the tea right away or chill it in the fridge, sealed in an air-tight container, for up to a week. I find that it tends to taste better once the flavors have had time to meld for at least a day or two.
To compose the rest of the salad, get out a large platter and put your artist’s hat on. Spread the cabbage and/or lettuce out in an even layer on the bottom, and begin heaping neat piles of all the goodies around in a circle. Mound the prepared tea leaves in the very center, and place the lemon wedges around the sides at regular intervals. Deliver the plate to the table like this with great fanfare- Presentation is a big part of this dish! To serve, squeeze the lemon wedges all over the salad and use a large serving spoon and fork to thoroughly mix the whole thing together. Divide the beautiful mess amongst your guests and eat immediately.
Makes 3 – 4 Side Servings