I first heard about “pickled tea” about a month ago, and was immediately intrigued; is the tea actually pickled or fermented? Is it something you eat, drink, or both? How is it used traditionally? I decided to do a little digging, and hopefully a little tasting for myself.
Pickled tea, also called lahpet, is indeed fermented tea leaves. It comes from Myanmar, previously known as Burma, and it’s a unique ingredient to the country. Interestingly, Myanmar is the only place in the world that views tea as both a food and a beverage, and pickled tea is an incredibly important food in their culture, both currently and historically. In the past, pickled tea was used as a peace offering between warring kingdoms, and even as a sign of dispute resolution among friends. Today, it’s eaten during nearly every symbolic and religious ceremony and is sure to be found at weddings, coming of age ceremonies and funerals. While it’s a very culturally significant food, it’s also enjoyed on an everyday basis, outside of ceremonies, most commonly in lahpet thok (tea leaf salad) or as a snack by itself (ahlu lahpet)
Pickled tea is so important to Myanmar culture that during the tea leaf harvests, the nicest, freshest tea leaves are set aside to be fermented while the rest goes on to be dried for drinking tea. It’s estimated that 17% of Myanmar’s tea crops goes on to become pickled tea! Once the tea is picked, it’s steamed and then transferred into bamboo vats and weighted down; it’s typically left to ferment for about 3-4 months.
While trying to get ahold of some pickled tea for myself, I discovered it’s hard to come by in Sonoma County! I discovered that we have a restaurant called Best of Burma, right in the heart of downtown Santa Rosa, and sure enough, they made tea leaf salad. I had to try it! The first bite was a mix of so many flavors, it was (and still is) hard to describe. It’s a blend of flavors and textures, and due to the many ingredients, each bite tasted a little different, but in a way that made the dish unique and wonderful. The tea itself had a slightly salty flavor, though not intense, and only tasted very mildly like tea as an aftertaste. There was oil added to it also, which was very complementary to the salty taste and was slightly reminiscent of olives. The taste was very distinct, yet hard to fully describe. The salad was so unique in flavor, and while there were many ingredients that contributed to the final taste, the tea completely made the salad! I totally recommend trying it- whether at a restaurant, or tracking down some online. It’s a wonderful, unique tasting food that I can’t wait to eat again!