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burmese tea, in three variations

I see that a number of people have arrived here searching for Burmese tea. So here is my suggestion for making Burmese tea when your nearest teashop is just too far away. This is about tea to drink (လက်ဖက်ရည်၊ ရေနွေး) but there is a bit about tea leaf salad (လက်ဖက်သုပ်) toward the end.

Black tea

First of all, there is no perfect substitute for black tea from Burma. It is some of the best black tea in the world, dark and rich, with a slight smokiness. If you are buying tea before leaving Yangon, I recommend buying the excellent, slightly chocolatey tea of Modern Teashop in Tamwe, where they’ll sell it to you by the pound, for much, much less than the price of gold. If you cannot make it to Modern, နဂါးပျံ Naga Pyan tea is also good, and comes in packages up to five pounds and is available all around the country. In Yangon, you could stop by their office at 188 Konzaydan, phone 240 646, 385798. Teashops which use this tea often have a sign with the tea brand on it, and you might do well to ask their assistance in ordering, or see if they have a bag they can sell you. Otherwise, you can get Soe Win tea in some shops.

If you can’t get Burmese tea, then use a strong malty Assam, like you can get from The Teacup in Seattle or Murchies. You will also need sweetened condensed milk and whole or condensed milk. (See comments section for links to some Burmese online shops.)

Ideally, put about a good tablespoon of the tea per cup, plus a pinch of oolong tea in the pot, and a very small amount of salt in cold water, and bring to a boil. Boil briefly, and then keep on very low heat, below the simmering point, or let steep for as long as you can wait, but at least 20 minutes. (A rice cooker with a ‘warm’ setting is very useful.) In some teashops, they leave the kettle on a low charcoal fire overnight.

When you pour out the tea, it should look as dark as good coffee. Put in about 20% warmed whole milk (in Burma, they use only evaporated milk, so you like that stuff, take your chance to use it here), and sweetened condensed milk to taste. Note how much you use, because of course it is best to put the sweetened condensed milk in first, and then stir in such a way to leave a small amount at the bottom of the cup, to be the dessert of the tea.

Oolong tea

The quality of oolong tea from Burma is highly variable. (In Burma, most people call this green or Chinese tea when speaking English, but it is grown mainly in Shan and Karen States, so is not Chinese, and is slightly fermented, so is not green tea. In Burmese it is called “hot water” or “coarse tea”.) Sometimes they add a small amount of another aromatic leaf which gives it a slightly popcorn-like flavour. This leaf is called လက်ဖက်မွှေး lahpe’ hmwe: in Burmese, and wai hom (fragrant leaf) in Shan.

My favourite oolong tea is grown and processed in a monastery at the edge of Keng Tung. To find the monastery, which is well-known for its sayadaw, Wasipei’ Sayadaw, as you are just passing the university, about to leave Keng Tung, look for a big tree on the left. Take the small road that goes by the tree, following it up the hill until you get to the monastery. You could walk there from the centre of Keng Tung in about 45 minutes. They have a tasting room with a gorgeous view, it makes an excellent outing in Keng Tung. The tea plantations were started by the sayadaw to help villages which had stopped growing opium, but had little to replace it with.

Tea-leaf salad

Pickled tea leaves have an odd flavour, it is is also pretty strange to be eating them with a heap of very hard accompaniments like lentils fried until they are crispy, and garlic chips. But one soon forgets how weird the ingredients are and stops speculating about how anyone first thought of making the dish, because it is so good. According to a book I have on the history of tea, only the Kachins and the Burmans eat tea leaves. Even the people who grow and pickle them in Shan State do so to sell them, and do not eat the dish, except as ‘foreign’ food. The quality of what you get in the thoroughly advertised Yuzana packets is not very good. The only way to get quality is to buy the tea and the mixed parts separately.

Mandalay is the best place to get the pickled tea. There you can get it in jars, which is probably a good way to carry it. Otherwise, what you get on the street is usually quite good — look for a natural greyish-green colour — if it is a a brighter dark green, it has been dyed. You will need to buy your crispy bits separately. The advantage of buying on the street or in a market is that you can sample a few, to see if you like the quality. I like the Kyaukpadaung ‘Twice fried’ (နှစ်ပြန်ကြော်) kind the best, but there is a light, delicate kind from Mandalay that includes pumpkin seeds which is particularly delicious.

To make it, mix peanut oil and a fair amount of salt into the tea leaves, and mix thoroughly with your hands. Then get some small cloves of garlic, small green chillies to taste, and if you like, cut in bits of (organic) lime, including the skin. You want small, thin-skinned limes. Mix thoroughly. I think it is delicious with pine nuts, though I have never seen it served this way in Burma.

If you cannot get peanut oil, too bad. Any oil with a bit of nutty flavour, like avocado oil, walnut oil, cold-press sunflower oil is better than a flavourless oil, like plain old vegetable oil. But sesame oil flavour is too strong, and some olive oils work with the tea, some clash with it, so if you have to use a flavourless oil, go ahead.

So, mix all the tea ingredients until they taste good, and then set that out on a plate with about one-third tea and two-thirds nuts, fried beans, sesame, etc. Eat it with a spoon, taking a bit of tea, and some of the rest.

Other variations are with ginger (though this is soaked in some solution to make it tender, not practical for home outside of Burma), grated cabbage, and/or thin tomato slices mixed with the tea (in which recipe you would be likely to leave out the lime).


5 Comments so far
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Hi, I am looking for a place to buy Burmese Tea online here in America. Do you know of any place? If so, can you email me the info? Thank you!

Comment by Albert

Hello Albert, you can get black tea (or other kinds of tea, if you back up a little) from Burma here:

http://www.mumhouse.com/Eng_TeaCoffeeDetails.asp?product_id=870,

but the shop is in London so delivery may be a little expensive. If you were wondering about pickled tea, I have to say I do not recommend Yuzana brand, but others are also available at this website in the US:

http://store.minthila.com/myanmarfood.html

Their labelling is not very good, so if you tell me just what you are looking for — black, oolong, flavoured oolong, or pickled, and if pickled, with the nuts and garlic and so on, or without, I can tell you which produce is which.

I have not ordered from either of these, as I am lucky enough to get supplies directly from Yangon, so I cannot vouch for them, but there is no reason to doubt them.

Comment by pansuriya

ugh. I should have read this column BEFORE I went to Burma. We got some laphet (but in a sealed pouch not a jar) and some tea in Yangon. Probably not the best ones and I guess I should have gotten the laphet in Mandalay…

After having tea leaf salad here at a Burmese restaurant I’ve been addicted to laphet. We had that dark green Burmese tea for the first time on the trip itself; so I had to get both.

Well at least the trip was a lot of fun, and since buying stuff wasn’t the focus I guess I shouldn’t feel I needed to get the top notch…

Comment by Dan S

Well, now that you know that pickled tea exists, you can try for higher quality next time. For some reason, people always seem to recommend the most famous (i.e., the most advertised) rather than the best. Anyway, the range in quality is not that wide — just some is more excellent than others. (The quality of the fried beans, nuts, sesame seeds etc is more variable, and some just have to be thrown out.) You can order it in the UK or US from the shops linked to in other comments. I particularly like the hot and sour ones with lime peel. Look for “chin sat” (sour hot) though romanisations may differ. You can look for ‘nyunt’ (tips) for higher quality.

By the way, I made cheddar-melt sandwiches with a few leaves of laphet, and they were wildly delicious.

Comment by pansuriya

I’ve known about laphet for a while (owing to a Burmese restaurant in my area) but just not where to get it. I really like the plain laphet (just fermented tea leaves).

The other toppings part is pretty easy: sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, peanuts are readily available. Dried garlic slices aren’t too hard to make. And then there are things that aren’t traditionally used but fit flavorwise (like toasted flax seed).

Laphet has such a unique and addictive flavor- I really don’t get why it isn’t wildly popular everywhere. I guess in time more people will get exposed to it.

Burmese tea is also amazing. In Yangon and Bagan we kept having this tea with a dark green color and a fantastically rich flavor. I asked a driver and he wrote out the Burmese name for it (so I thought). When I got home and tried it I found it was a different one (brews to a light brown color and has a slightly smoky flavor)… at least it is also a great tea. Do you know the name for the dark green tea? Sadly some places in Burma serve Lipton (not sure why the possible birthplace of tea, with such amazing teas would serve the bottom of the barrel…).

I’ll leave the cheddar + laphet to you. I can’t stand the cheesy cheeses, but I love durian (even the smell, if it is fresh)… kind of odd for an American

Comment by Dan S




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