My first encounter with Laphet Thote, tea leaf salad, was at the Burmese restaurant Village Mingala in the East Village. There’s something about the sharp zing and pronounced flavor of fermentation that really speaks to me. While the namesake tea leaves were the star of the show, the roasted peanuts, along with a smattering of nuts and seeds stirred into the dish, played a strong supporting role, offering a rounded, nutty contrast to the sharp, pronounced flavor of fermented tea leaves. But before I could return to Village Mingala for a second taste, I was sad to learn that the restaurant had closed down.
Eaten the authentic Burmese way, Laphet Thote challenges the conventional concept of salad. The first thing that comes to mind when you think “salad” is some sort of leafy green. Well, in a Laphet Thote, there are none. The laphet, the Burmese word for these fermented tea leaves, is served in the center of the a dish with other assorted ingredients, which differ according to your preference, encircle the star of the dish.
Typically, a telltale sign of a good salad is a balanced distribution of salad components and dressing in each bite, commonly mixed together in a larger portion then served. On the other hand, tea leaf salad is served in a compartmentalized container, making it possible to adjust the proportion of the ingredients of each handful according to your taste.
I was able to recreate tea leaf salad at home thanks to my Burmese friend Sophie, who not only serves as my resource for all things Burmese related, but also kindly supplies me with laphet, which is apparently illegal to import and distribute here in the United States. I didn’t have a cool compartmentalized platter handy, but here’s Laphet Thote, done my way: A scoop of laphet surrounded by roasted peanuts, fried yellow lentils, toasted sesame seeds, fried garlic, and some more nuts
The import of laphet has been banned because certain brands have been found to contain traces of Auramine O, a yellow dye used for coloring silk, cotton, paper and leather, was found. I’m not sure if this is still the case, but I’m hoping that with a gradually growing Burmese community in New Jersey and Queens, there’ll be more chances for laphet thote to emerge on more menus and restaurants.