In an occasional series, Benjamin Seto homes in on one popular dish at an East Bay restaurant, and talks to its creator about its ingredients and how it is crafted. The first in the series looked at the beet-cured trout prepared by Chef Shotaro Kamio at Iyasare in Berkeley.
One of the more popular dishes ordered at Grocery Café isn’t exactly cooked as much as it’s assembled.
The Burmese tea salad at the nine-month-old restaurant in East Oakland’s quiet Ivy Hill neighborhood is a combination of fresh cabbage and tomatoes blended with crunchy nuts and seeds, dressed simply with fish sauce and lime juice. The star, however, is the fermented fresh tea leaves in the center.
Co-owner William Lue, who’s also the proprietor of four other Burmese restaurants in the Bay Area including The Refined Palate in Orinda, says Grocery Café serves at least 25 tea salads a day. He’s open six days a week, so that’s roughly 600 salads a month, or 7,200 a year.
The tea salad, known as “lehpet thoke,” is often considered the national dish of Burma, now known as Myanmar. It’s eaten morning, noon and night, and even as a late-night snack — often while sipping Burmese tea. A ceremonial version, minus the cabbage and eaten with a tiny spoon, was traditionally used to settle disputes in court.
There are no disputes over the tea salad at Grocery Café, unless you’re fighting with your dining companion over who gets the last bite. Lue says he likes to add a few untraditional ingredients to his version, such as raw red onions and roasted garlic.
Lue begins the salad with a base of thinly shredded cabbage and diced tomatoes, surrounded by an assortment of dried, roasted, or fried ingredients: skin-on peanuts, chickpeas, refried beans from Burma, toasted garlic, roasted shallots, dried shrimp and sesame seeds. Then he places a ladleful of tea leaves on top.
These aren’t ordinary dried tea leaves. They’re fresh tea leaves from the Camellia sinensis family imported from Myanmar. The leaves are fermented or “pickled” until they develop a distinctively pungent flavor.
“I like to boil the leaves for a short time, cool them and then put them away, preferably in a cold container,” Lue said. “I prefer many weeks to let them ferment. The longer the better.”
The tea leaves ferment in the refrigerator under a cover of oil. Traditionally, peanut oil is used for flavor, but Lue says he uses vegetable oil at the restaurant in case a customer has a peanut allergy.
The salad is finished off with diced red onions, fresh garlic and jalapeño — he’ll add Thai chili or habanero for more kick — and dressed with oil and fish sauce. Lue says the key, though, is the hit of freshly squeezed lime juice right before serving. “The salad to me isn’t perfect until the lime,” he said.
At the restaurant, the tea salad is tossed at the table for a refreshing plate of crunchiness mixed with the funkiness from the tea. When he makes the salad at home, Lue says he adds his own “balachung,” a condiment often made of dried shrimp, fried garlic, onions, chili and anchovies.
With the variety of ingredients in the salad, there’s probably a little bit of something for everyone. And with the underlining caffeine from the tea leaves, it’s probably healthier than a cup of latte.
Lue demonstrated how he composes the salad. Follow along as he prepares the dish, step by step:
Benjamin Seto is the voice behind Focus:Snap:Eat, where he dishes on food at restaurants and shops in the Bay Area, in his kitchen, and from his culinary adventures.