From Burma, with Love

Some restaurants have a signature dish; one exceptional entree that’s a must-order every time. Much to the dismay of the indecisive diner, the entire menu at Burma Superstar (and sibling eateries Burma Love and Burma Club) reads like an endless stream of top hits. You can’t leave without trying the inimitable tea leaf salad, tossed table side to provide both dinner and a show, but don’t forget about the spicy samusa soup and crispy yet creamy fried yellow bean tofu, too. Then there’s also the tofu kebat, a tangy tomato stir-fry, and you simply must taste the long simmered, smoldering heat of the eggplant curry. Shame if you didn’t leave room for dessert, or at least a bite of coconut rice, which straddles the line between sweet and savory for compatible crossovers in every course.

My deepest condolences to anyone hoping to try something different on a solo visit. Considering the inevitable line at any location, any hour of the day, the stakes are high to make every meal count. With limited time and stomach capacity, it’s overwhelming to consider the full range of options without defaulting back to those fool-proof favorites.

At least the Burma Superstar cookbook makes it possible to get your fill of all the best-sellers, sleeper hits, and undiscovered treasures at home. Sparing no secrets, this glossy tome to Burmese cookery deserves every bit as much praise as the eateries, if not more, for making the recipes accessible to all eaters. Much of the menu is already vegan or veganizable, and the options expand infinitely when starting from scratch with readily available meat and seafood alternatives.

Still, some of the best dishes are those that have been plant-based from the start. I must return to those famous Superstar Noodles, which combine thick and chewy wheat noodles with aromatic five spice tofu and a battery of crunchy seeds and split peas, all tangled together in a tart, tangy, sweet, and spicy tamarind lacquer.

I was lucky enough to win a copy of this book in a random stroke of luck a month ago, and now I want to spread the love. If you’d like the full play list of this Bay Area institution’s cult hits, I’m thrilled to share a copy with another hungry cook and loving home. That’s right, I’m giving away this gorgeous cookbook, with the blessing of the Burma Superstar masterminds themselves. All you have to do is leave me a comment about your favorite Burmese food, or what you’d like to try most if you’ve never had it before, and log your entry in the form below. This giveaway not sponsored nor associated with Burma Superstar. Residents of the continental US only, for shipping purposes.

If you just want a taste to see what you’re in for, continue on to get the lightly adapted recipe for this famous noodle recipe, poised to become the headlining star of any meal.

Continue reading “From Burma, with Love”

Winning Friends with Salad

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

Tea Leaves:

1/4 Cup Water
2 Tablespoons White Vinegar
1 Packet (1/4 Cup) Moroccan Mint Gunpowder Green Tea
1 Packet (1/4 Cup) Pomegranate Green Tea
2 Tablespoons Soy Sauce
2 Tablespoons Toasted Sesame Oil

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

Printable Recipe