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Is there any drink in the world that inspires as much love as tea? Whether it’s Japanese green tea, South African rooibos, Tibetan yak butter tea, Indian chai, Moroccan mint tea or just a comforting mug of builder’s; tea is a treasured part of cultures all over the planet, and comes second only to water as the most widely consumed drink in the world.
Tea originated in China as a medicinal drink, and the Chinese still drink the most tea collectively – but today the biggest consumers of tea are, somewhat surprisingly to me, the Turkish, who drink black tea without milk. Next up are the Irish, followed by (depending on whom you ask) either the Brits or the Uzbekistanis, with Russia, Morocco and New Zealand hot on their heels. I have to say that I am rather disappointed that old Blighty didn’t make it to the top spot, but it’s certainly no fault of mine.
Of all the tea-guzzling countries, however, Burma is particularly unusual. As far as I’m aware (and please correct me if I’m wrong), Burma is the only place in the world where tea is traditionally eaten as well as drunk. Of course, that’s not counting tea flavoured things, of which there are thousands in Japan alone – but that, as far as I’m concerned, is something quite different.
Lahpet is the Burmese name for tea leaves that have been fermented or pickled, and it is a delicacy so popular in Burma that most people consider it the national dish. There is even a saying in Burmese: “of all the fruit, mango’s best; of all the meat, pork’s best; of all the leaves, lahpet’s best”.
Lahpet is made by steaming the tea leaves then packing them into bamboo vats and weighed down with heavy weights. The resulting tangy, pickled leaves are most commonly used in a dish called lahpet thoke (pronounced like “lah-pay toe”), or tea leaf salad, combined with garlic, fresh tomatoes, chilli, sesame oil, fish sauce and lime. Ingredients like roasted peanuts, shredded cabbage, dried shrimp and crunchy beans can also be used, with each constituent served in a separate pile so the eater can combine them as he or she chooses. You might also encounter lahpet served simply with white rice at the conclusion of a meal.
In many of the countries where tea is popular, it’s not just a comforting and warming beverage but an integral part of the culture. Often it’s a gesture of hospitality, as in Turkey or China; sometimes (as in Britain) it’s simply the answer to every problem. In Burma, tea is no less significant. Historically, lahpet was a peace offering – presented by warring kingdoms to each other, or simply eaten to mark the resolution of a dispute between friends. As recently as the colonial period, lahpet was even used in the Burmese court system: if a defendant ate the proffered tea leaves, it signified that he accepted the judge’s verdict.
In addition to this function, lahpet plays an important symbolic role in pretty much every important ceremony or celebration in Burma. It’s given as an offering to monks, eaten at weddings, and used to appease Burmese nat spirits. Guests are traditionally invited to the Buddhist coming-of-age ritual, shinbyu, by someone calling door-to-door with lahpet, and their consumption of the leaves is taken as confirmation of their attendance. It’s eaten by funeral-goers to help them keep their vigil over the dead at night, by students to keep themselves awake to study, and by audiences out at late-night theatre performances.
And if the pungent taste of lahpet isn’t for you, don’t worry – the Burmese also commonly drink strong, sweet tea with evaporated or condensed milk. Give it a try!
For more information about Burmese food and drink, take a look at the Culinary Traditions section of our website.