Burmese Cooks Make the World's Most Delicious Salads—Here's How to Make Them at Home
Photo by Leigh Beisch
We were in a scrum of diners, pointing at small plates stacked at the counter while servers wrote down orders. Jet-lagged, I gestured at a dish of sliced samosas and cabbage and let my companions choose the rest.
A platter of vegetables-a standard restaurant freebie-arrived ahead of shrimp curry, rice, stir-fried water spinach and bowls topped with shallots, garlic and dried shrimp. Soon the table was covered, with no two dishes alike.
Many of these plates were what people in Myanmar call thoke, salad. But it means "salad" only in the loosest sense. A better translation is that these are dishes mixed by hand and served at room temperature-like many American salads. But that's where the similarities end.
Burmese salads range from simple combinations of pickled ginger and cabbage to complex matrixes of noodles and 20 other ingredients. And while Burmese cooks are experts at balancing intense flavors, what makes each salad memorable is texture.
One of the crunchiest salads on the table combined crispy garlic, fried split peas and peanuts, cabbage and umami-rich laphet, fermented tea leaves. This dish-laphet thoke, tea-leaf salad-is what drives the hour-long wait at the San Francisco Bay Area Burma Superstar restaurants. I was in Yangon, Myanmar's largest city, with their owner, Desmond Tan, to research the Burma Superstar cookbook.
All the salads on the table were revelations. If my order-fried samosas tossed in mint, tamarind water and cabbage-was a "salad," I was going to enjoy this crash course in Burmese cuisine. And the restaurant-Feel Myanmar Food, a place near several embassies-was a perfect introduction.
That Myanmar has embassies is remarkable, given that the country formerly called Burma cut itself off from the world following a military coup in 1962. In 2010, the military's grip began to loosen, prompting countries to ease sanctions. But ethnic fighting continues, as does the humanitarian crisis over the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group not recognized by the government.
Yet visiting the country is like seeing a young democracy find its way. After decades of isolation from the modern world, the country moved quickly from typewriters to smart phones. Cars, once scarce, clog Yangon's streets. But food has changed relatively little. Fast food is rare, modern grocery stores even more so, and even high-end restaurants are low-tech, cooking with charcoal stoves and a few woks.
Salads, made seemingly everywhere, are a way to create variety from very little. On the steamy climb to visit the temple on Mt. Popa, we not only passed monkeys but also women mixing noodle salad26s dressed with tamarind water. Later we cooled off with a green tomato salad with peanuts and cilantro. And at a tiny market we were offered dried mutton tossed with shallots, garlic, lime juice and chiles.
"What is it?" we asked. "Thoke," the owner told us. We ordered a second plate.
I've learned how to satisfy thoke cravings at home. These salads share a similar rhythm of salty and sour flavors combined with a bass note of umami. Tamarind water or lime juice adds sour; fish sauce, shrimp paste or ground shrimp adds salt and funk. Shredded cabbage makes up the chorus. As for the rest, anything goes, and I often veer from tradition, opting for romaine lettuce in place of cabbage or grapefruit instead of the local citrus. The spirit of Burmese salads-use what you have-travels well.
There will always be something special about eating thoke. But now I don't have to cross the Pacific to get my fix.
Burmese Salad Recipes to Try
1 Traditionally, the star of this famous Burmese salad, laphet, is made by fermenting just-picked tea leaves for several months underground. While laphet is starting to be imported, it is still hard to find. This version, using readily available green tea, offers a quick alternative. Mix the salad at the table so everyone can appreciate the diversity of ingredients--from crunchy to savory--that make it so special. Noodle Salad with Tofu
0 We've kept it simple with just rice noodles in this healthy vegan noodle salad recipe, but if you want to go wild, use wheat noodles, glass noodles or even your favorite spiralized veggie noodles. Ginger Salad
0 Ginger salad is nearly as popular as tea-leaf salad in Myanmar and is just as crunchy. This version uses purchased pickled ginger; i.e., the same ginger on your sushi tray. This healthy salad recipe also has the nontraditional addition of romaine lettuce, which gives it a lighter bite. Green Bean & Shallot Salad
0 This easy Asian green bean salad recipe gets a deeply savory flavor from shallots and fish sauce. Part of the reason is time: after it's made, the dish is left at room temp for 20 minutes to allow the green beans to absorb more flavor. Serve with grilled chicken or shrimp. Citrus & Napa Cabbage Salad
0 Spooned into small bowls to eat alongside the rest of the meal, citrus salads act as bright accents to rich curries in Myanmar. If you can find Meyer lemons, use a mix of grapefruit and Meyer lemons for a less bitter and more floral bite. Burmese Chicken Salad
0 Swapping out mayonnaise in favor of lime juice and shallots is a simple change, but its impact gives this healthy chicken salad recipe a light, fresh feel. For more color, try swapping in a bit of red cabbage for the green. More Healthy Recipes
Burmese Salad Staples
Keep these ingredients on hand to make Burmese-style salads any night.
1. Toasted Chickpea Flour
Toast 1/4 cup chickpea flour in a dry medium skillet over medium heat, stirring frequently, until golden, about 3 minutes. Transfer to a small bowl and let cool. Store airtight in a cool dark place for up to 2 months.
2. Dried Shrimp Powder
Put 2 Tbsp. dried shrimp in a coffee grinder reserved for grinding spices. Pulse until ground to a fluffy powder. Store airtight at room temperature for up to 3 days or freeze for up to 6 months.
3. Fried Yellow Split Peas
Soak 1/3 cup yellow split peas in water for at least 4 hours or up to 12 hours. Drain and pat dry. Place a fine-mesh strainer over a heatproof bowl. Heat 3/4 cup canola oil in a small skillet over medium heat. Add the split peas and cook, stirring often, until they start to turn a deep mustard color, 4 to 6 minutes. Pour the split peas and oil through the strainer (discard the oil). Transfer the split peas to a paper-towel-lined plate. Store airtight at room temperature for up to 2 weeks.
4. Fried Shallots
Place a fine-mesh strainer over a heatproof bowl. Heat 1/2 cup canola oil in a small skillet over medium-high heat. Add 1/2 cup halved and sliced shallots, reduce heat to medium and cook, stirring often, until golden brown, 3 to 5 minutes. Pour the shallots and oil through the strainer. Transfer the shallots to a paper-towel-lined plate. Reserve the oil, if desired. Store fried shallots airtight at room temperature for up to a week; refrigerate the oil for up to 2 months.
5. Seedless Tamarind Paste
Sometimes called "wet tamarind," this is found with other Asian pantry ingredients at well-stocked supermarkets. Avoid tamarind pods or tamarind concentrate, which has a different flavor and texture. Refrigerate for up to 1 year.
6. Fried Garlic
Place a fine-mesh strainer over a heatproof bowl. Heat 1/3 cup canola oil in a small skillet over medium heat. Reduce heat to low and add 1/4 cup sliced garlic; cook, stirring frequently, until the garlic is golden brown, about 4 minutes. Pour the garlic and oil through the strainer. Transfer the garlic to a paper-towel-lined plate. Reserve the oil to use on salads. Store fried garlic airtight in a cool dark place for up to 1 month; refrigerate the oil for up to 2 months.
The Best of Burma
Before you go
Cheers if you're an intrepid traveler. But, given the political situation in Myanmar, it's smart to check with your state department for travel advisories before you finalize your plans.
Where to Go
Travel between November and February for the best weather. Connecting flights to Yangon leave from Doha, Taipei, Bangkok and Seoul. Book flights within Myanmar through a local travel agent or at the Yangon airport.
Where to Stay
YANGON: Relive the city's colonial past at The Strand or watch modern-day dealmaking in the lobby of the Sule Shangri-La.
MANDALAY: Stay at the Mandalay Hill Resort Hotel for easy access to walk up the hill overlooking the city.
BAGAN: Relax along the Ayeyarwady River after temple hopping at the Thiripyitsaya Sanctuary Resort.
Where & What to Eat
YANGON: For a crash course in Burmese food, hit Feel Myanmar Food or try House of Memories for a look at Myanmar's past, including a room said to have been the office of revolutionary leader Aung San.
MANDALAY: Visit Mingalabar Myanmar for regional specialties.
DON'T MISS: Start the day with a bowl of mohinga-the country's beloved catfish noodle soup. And, look for spots serving Shan noodles, banana leaf salad and spicy Rakhine fish dishes.
Kate Leahy is a San Francisco-based cookbook author. Her next book, Lavash, due out in 2019, takes her to the world of Armenian flatbreads.
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