This salad is often called Burma’s national dish. Laphet is the word for “green tea” and thoke means “salad” (it’s pronounced “la-pay toe”). It’s a dazzling combination of fermented tea leaves, soft-textured and a little acid and astringent, with other tastes and textures: crisp, roasted peanuts and other crunchy beans, toasted sesame seeds, dried shrimp, and fried garlic. It may come to the table already mixed (and including a little chopped tomato) or, more often, be served with all the ingredients in separate piles so that guests can pick up their own combination of flavors and textures each time they reach for a handful. Laphet thoke is traditionally served as a final taste at the end of the meal, much like sweetened whole spices may be served at the end of a north Indian meal, or tea or coffee at the end of a Western meal.
Packages of prepared laphet thoke ingredients—the tea leaves and all the other flavorings—are sold everywhere in Burma. Burmese who live abroad buy stacks of the packages when they return on visits to take back with them. In other words, finding fermented tea leaves outside Burma and northern Thailand can be a problem. So, although the tea leaves are sometimes available in North America (you can order them online from a New York–based company called Minthila: www.minthila.com), they’re often hard to get. This recipe is here as an act of optimism, in the hope that fermented tea leaves will soon become more widely available.
If you are starting with unprocessed fermented tea leaves, then start preparing them several hours or as long as the night before you wish to serve the salad: they need to be soaked in water to remove their strongest tart and bitter edge.
At least 6 hours before you wish to serve the salad, place the tea leaves in lukewarm water and mash with your hands a little. Drain and squeeze out. Repeat, then add cold water and let stand for 1 hour (or as long as overnight). Drain, squeeze thoroughly to remove excess water, and discard any tough bits. Chop finely by hand or in a food processor; set aside.
If serving the salad unmixed, omit the tomato and cabbage. Place small piles of all the ingredients on a platter, or put each ingredient in a small bowl and place the bowls on a platter. Serve the dressing, if using, in a separate small bowl. Put out spoons with each ingredient, or invite guests to use their hands. Invite guests to help themselves as they wish; they can eat two or three of the ingredients together or mix up a combination for themselves on their own plates.
If serving as a mixed salad, combine all the ingredients (except salt) in a bowl. Mix with your hands, separating any clumped tea leaves and the shreds of cabbage to blend everything thoroughly. Add the dressing ingredients and blend thoroughly with your hands. Add salt to taste and adjust other seasonings if you wish.
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