Street food is an essential part of Southeast Asia's DNA. In the West, it's often reduced to mere skewers of grilled meat, which certainly can hit the spot when paired with a cooling lager on a bright and dusty late afternoon. But brilliant meals of all kinds can be found on the buzzing streets of Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.
In the commercial capital of Myanmar, Yangon, juice from masticated betel nuts leave a crimson stain on everything, including the teeth of people who chew them as a pick-me-up. Shin-high red and blue plastic stools line up in rank and file, spilling out from the city's plethora of sidewalk food carts. Customers have to half-sit, half-squat if they want their breakfast or lunch. Yangon is still one of those places where anyone who thinks they have what it takes to cook for strangers can succeed by staking out a spot with high foot traffic, slinging out orders as customers pile in.
From deep-fried samosas to dosas served with three sides of stew, spicy mohinga noodles to the most succulent chicken I've had in a long time, there's no shortage of cheap, good food fueling this reforming former capital. For me, one dish in particular stands out. It's called lahpet thoke, and it's something unique to the country. The central ingredient is a pile of simple tea leaves, pickled and served as part of a rich salad.
In the face of all of Myanmar's changes, street food remains a staple—and an equalizer.
A typical serving of lahpet thoke fills two handfuls. Tomato slivers and crunchy, double-fried beans, peas, or peanuts are plucked from metal bowls or reused plastic jugs, then tossed with fermented tea leaves preserved in a pool of oil—that's a good thing, because it keeps out everything that would otherwise make you sick. A glug or two of peanut oil flavored with roasted garlic is poured over everything before an abundance of toasted white sesame seeds are sprinkled on top. The entire process takes about 30 seconds, because specialization births efficiency, and this is often the only dish served by the Burmese women operating makeshift food carts. Everything is then stuffed into a plastic bag, and scooped out with a plastic spoon as one navigates the chaotic streets—your concentration split between appreciating the subtle tea flavor in every bite and trying not to sprain an ankle on the pothole-filled sidewalks. Walking can be a treacherous activity in Yangon.
Myanmar's former capital is experiencing rapid evolution, thanks to an easing of stringent political ideas and a flood of foreign investment. Yangon might not be a large city, but there are visible signs that the economy has changed immensely in the past few years. Internal reform has been sluggish, but big changes require time. The roads and sidewalks may be a little off-putting, the internet connection is extremely slow (or even absent on some days), and the city is constantly dusty, in part due to unending construction.
But condos are popping up on every street. ATMs are easier to locate, and they take international credit cards. Visitor numbers are steadily increasing. Western coffee shop culture is seeping in. Crows are everywhere, but the construction crane may soon become the Burmese national bird. In the face of all of these changes, street food remains a staple—and an equalizer. Migrant construction workers can be found rubbing elbows with bank branch managers at streetside noodle stands, sipping greentea from the same teapots to wash down savory curries or spicy Kachin chicken, with lahpet thoke to end the meal.
Looking at the humble sellers offering this dish, one might not realize that there is major significance in a few pickled tea leaves. Centuries ago, when Southeast Asian kingdoms vied to expand their borders so they could absorb the rich fertile land on either side of the Tropic of Cancer, the kings of Burma went to war with those of Siam. After blood was shed and armies were exhausted, disputes had to be settled—and that was done over lahpet thoke. The dish was a diplomatic lubricant during centuries of geopolitical shifts, and its significance as a peace offering was carried over even to BritishColonial Burma: When an official settled a dispute, that meant a verdict had been reached and accepted.
Admittedly, there's nothing appealing about the pools of grease that lahpet lies in, but it's important to let the colors and smells speak for themselves. It takes a few bites to get used to the idea of eating tea leaves, but it has a mellow melt to it. In dusty Yangon, I find it particularly refreshing.
It's not always easy to find lahpet outside of Myanmar or Northern Thailand, but you can make it yourself if you're comfortable with the idea of fermenting food at home. Start with whole, fresh tea leaves. Soak them in hot water to reduce their bitterness, remove their stems, squeeze out all liquid, and place them in fresh lukewarm water. Mash them with your hands, strain them, and then place the leaves in cold water for a few hours. Drain them and remove all liquid again, then chop them up. Mix in some ginger, chillies, garlic, salt, lime juice, and whatever seasoning you want in the final mixture. Cover the dish tightly and then let it ferment in a dark place for two to three days. After that, it's ready to be served.
A few years ago, the Burmese Ministry of Health discovered that over 40 brands of lahpet were dyed with a banned chemical, which could cause organ damage or even cancer.
Though Yangon is dotted with little food stalls selling bags of lahpet, I was told that genuine lahpet can only be found north of the former capital, like in Mandalay, or even further up. At a New Year's Eve party, a northern Burmese man told me, "Yangon isn't real Burma. They're ethnically different from the rest of us." He suggested that aside from the bloodlines of Yangon, even their food was watered down.
Lahpet thoke is sort of a Burmese national dish, but it's not immune from controversy. A few years ago, the Burmese Ministry of Health discovered that over 40 brands of lahpet were dyed with a banned chemical, which could cause organ damage or even cancer. Singapore and Malaysia banned the importation of lahpet; Thailand did not, because many migrant workers within Thai borders are from Myanmar and they need their comforts from home.
But if you're ever in Yangon, look for the women with a metal tray of green leaves in grease. It might look like some kind of sludge from a science fiction movie, but eat it. The best tea leaves of Myanmar are reserved for lahpet thoke. And once you take a bite of it, you'll almost certainly want more.