Sunday, March 24, 2013

Burmese Tea Leaf Salad

I headed to San Francisco last weekend, for the first time believe it or not, and had a remarkable culinary discovery at a place in the inner Richmond called Burma Superstar: Tea leaf salad, which you see above (I didn't get a shot of my own, so I pinched one from Grace Chen of We don't have a Burmese community in Portland, but we have some adventurous Southeast Asian restaurants, so once I got home, I figured I'd be able to find it somewhere around town. I was wrong. Nobody's doing this dish here, that I've yet found, anyway. So I set out to try and recreate what I'd had.

The definitive ingredient in this salad is fermented tea leaves, which due to a general lack of trade between Burma and the U.S., as well as a couple of really sketchy chemicals used in most commercial Burmese preparations, is basically impossible to get here (apparently, the Burma Superstar folks make regular excursions to Burma and mule a bunch of it back). There used to be an importer in London that you could order it from, but that source seems to have since dried up (and who wants to pay $40 in shipping for $2 worth of fermented tea leaves?). Making them myself wasn't really an option, as the process takes months and, presumably, a tropical climate, so the next best alternative was to use pickled tea leaves instead. I found this recipe online, for both the pickled tea leaves and the salad itself, and altered it a bit for my own purposes.

This salad is a two-step process, the first being the pickling and pureeing of the tea leaves. Here's the mise on that:

1 C water
1 C rice wine vinegar
1 Tbsp fish sauce
1 Tbsp Maggi seasoning
1 Tbsp Sriracha
1/4 C toasted sesame oil
1/4 C extra virgin olive oil
1/4 C green tea leaves (loose, not bagged; I used gunpowder)
1 Tbsp chopped lemongrass

Simmer the tea leaves and lemongrass in the vinegar and water for 30 minutes, then strain them and remove as much of the liquid as possible. I used, appropriately, a tea towel for this purpose:

Next, combine with the rest of the ingredients in a food processor or blender and puree. What you'll end up with is a dark and funky paste that looks like this:

The second step of the process is pretty simple, and involves combining your tea leaf paste with the rest of the ingredients. Here's the mise for that:

I head of cabbage, shredded
Tea leaf paste
1 green pepper, minced
1 tomato, chopped
1/4 C sesame seeds
1/2 C sunflower seeds
1/2 C fried garlic
3/4 C roasted peanuts
1 lemon, cut into wedges

Combine all of the ingredients except the lemon into a bowl, squeeze the lemon wedges over them, and mix together (it's messy, but it's best to use your hands):

That's pretty much it. This came damn close to what I had in San Francisco, and was delicious. Like, seriously delicious. I'm very happy with the outcome, and I'm looking forward to introducing this dish to friends and relatives at potlucks and barbecues this summer. Serve topped with a few bean sprouts and a healthy dose of finely chopped dried shrimp. And enjoy...