Pickled tea leaves may sound like an acquired taste, but lahpet thouk, Burma’s religiously important and culturally significant national dish, is downright delicious. After eating his fair share whilst living in Burma, Harry Carr-Ellison travelled to the hills of Pindaya to understand how it’s made. After building relationships with smallholder farmers (and finding himself ever more passionate about it), he set up The Lost Tea Company.
I first came to Myanmar through work in 2015. It was during this time that I first tasted lahpet thouk. The diversity of Myanmar cuisine fascinated me – from sticky Shan noodles to Kachin curries – but it was lahpet, a tea leaf salad comprised of fermented tea leaves, assorted fried beans, peas and nuts, garlic, white cabbage, lime, dried shrimp and tomatoes, which really struck a chord.
Unlike other fermented food, it has a unique flavour; an initial salty taste that gives way to a subtle green tea flavour that compliments savoury food very well. Whether it’s a restaurant or a family recipe, there are often variations to the dish such as the addition of extra chilli or dried ginger and people often travel across town to get their favourite version of the salad.
Starting The Lost Tea Company
After talking to friends who had previously visited Myanmar I realised that they had missed out on trying it whilst here, and after doing some research, I discovered that this delicious salad wasn’t available in high-end hotels, restaurants or tourist shops. Spotting this gap in the market (and having worked with tea previously), I began to think more seriously about whether I could somehow be involved in making it more accessible.
After visiting the tea plantations of Pindaya to meet smallholder farmers – with whom I had an instant rapport – I committed myself to a new project: The Lost Tea Company. We first established a presence in the UK and soon discovered that people who had never tried Myanmar cuisine enjoyed the taste of fermented tea. This encouraged us to return to find ways to get ethically sourced stock and MSG-free lahpet thouk into shops and hotels. We’ve spent time with farmers to make sure we have the highest quality leaves and crunchy beans, peas and nuts for our salads.
Pindaya, a town and area in Shan State, is at the heart of the Lost Tea Company. It is an area of outstanding natural beauty, with stunning hills, caves and a lake at the centre. There are also calm and welcoming guest houses, each with their own spirit. On the edge of the lake there are thriving tea shops, a bustling morning market and remarkable scenery. We are working towards collaborating with various NGO, charitable and governmental organisations to ensure ethical and sustainable development here and we are a transparent operation.
Difference between green tea and fermented tea?
Fermented tea and green tea are made from the same tea leaves, it just comes down to the processing. Instead of picking, drying and then drinking the tea leaves, when making fermented tea the leaves are quickly boiled and then left to ferment for three months. They are then washed and then mixed with salt, lime and oil.
Favourite memory from Burma (Myanmar)
I have so many favourite memories from my time here, but the top one is also one of my first. On the morning of my arrival at one of the smallholder farmers that we work with I asked if I could have a wash (I had spent the previous evening on a night bus). He kindly agreed and pointed down towards the well next to the house.
I wrapped myself in a longyi, and headed to the well, next to it was a metal bowl. I promptly filled it with freezing cold water – the farms are high in the hills and it gets pretty chilly in the evenings. Not wanting to lose face in front of the farmers I poured the icy water over myself again and again. It was at this point that I saw the farmers were beside themselves with laughter. They told me that obviously no-one showers like this in the mornings when the water is so cold, you wait until the evenings when the water has warmed.
Since day one I have felt at home. They are immensely kind and welcoming.
Visit Pindaya on our Hidden Trails of Burma fully tailored journey.
To try lahpet for yourself (before visiting Burma, of course), head to The Lost Tea Company: www.lostteacompany.com