One Thoke Over the Line


One of my experiments with homemade Lahpet Thoke, Burmese Tea Leaf Salad

Long ago when I lived in the Village, I was introduced to Burmese cuisine at a restaurant on East 7th Street called Village Mingala. I confess to having eaten my way through their entire menu, annotating items I liked best, and bringing friends as often as I could in order to partake of some delicious, and otherwise difficult to find, dishes. Despite my best efforts to singlehandedly keep them in business, they closed many years ago, so taking the road less travelled as is my wont (read: making things difficult for myself), I decided that I’d better learn to cook Burmese food. You can see some of the fare I prepared for a Myanmar-themed birthday party here. Cloning Ohn No Khao Swè – noodles in a curried chicken and coconut milk broth with besan (chickpea flour that figures notably into the cuisine) – was pretty straightforward, but to this day I can’t even come close to their Thousand Layer Pancake. Couldn’t even get to a hundred. In addition to Village Mingala’s imposing assortment of first-rate noodle dishes, the Burmese salads were always a high point of any meal I enjoyed there. One universal favorite on the menu was Tea Leaf Salad.

In Myanmar, tea is not only drunk, but also consumed as food. Lahpet (you’ll also see it as laphat, laphet, lephet, leppet, letpet or let-phet as it’s spelled on Village Mingala’s menu – yes, I kept a copy from 2008) is the Burmese word for pickled or fermented tea leaves. It’s pronounced [ləpʰɛʔ] if you’re keen to flex your International Phonetic Alphabet muscles. Thoke means salad (pronounce the “th” like an aspirated “t”). Stick them together, as in lahpet thoke, and you’ve got yourself one addictive dish. (Also note that some folks claim to get a buzz from the caffeine in the tea leaves; I don’t, but YMMV.)

The quest turned out to be a learning experience that stretched across many years. One thing I learned from some Burmese acquaintances craving the flavor of home is that they simply go to the market and buy it ready-made rather than rolling their own. Typically it’s found in a two-part kit comprising the dressed, ready-to-eat tea leaves along with a bag of what I’ll call “crunchies”; those are the two essential ingredients of lahpet thoke. If you’ve never experienced tea leaf salad, understand that it usually isn’t composed exclusively of tea leaves; rather, they’re combined with some raw veggies and are an accent, albeit a significant one, to the ingredient list.

If you want to buy what I refer to as a kit, there’s a teeny room (barely a store) called Little Myanmar Mini Mart (37-50 74th Street in Jackson Heights, Queens) that sells a number of brands of prepared lahpet thoke. It’s easy to miss because it’s so small: go in through the narrow entrance, ignore the phone store on the right, don’t go down the stairs, save Lhasa Fast Food at the far end for later so you can sample their wonderful momos; just turn left and follow the signs (in Burmese IIRC) for the Mini Mart. Don’t give up. They’re there.

Each time I’ve visited, there’s been something new and different on the shelves, and to my mind that makes up for the modest size of the shop, so repeat visits are in order. Here are two of the kits I tried; they were similar but distinctive, and both were tasty.
 
However, I wanted to try making my own dressing for the tea leaves from scratch (the road less traveled, remember?) and I found undressed leaves both at Little Myanmar and also at Kalustyan’s (123 Lexington Avenue near East 28th in Manhattan).

The leaves in this condition aren’t ready to eat. Absent any dressing, they taste a lot like tea (unlike the prepared leaves in the kits), a little bitter, and appear very different as well. In the third photo, the plain leaves are on the right, the other two are the prepared versions from the kits mentioned above. I didn’t detect any fermented or pickled flavor but that’s where the dressing comes into play. You’ll need to soak them in lukewarm water, squishing them a bit with your hands. Drain and squeeze out the water. Repeat, then add cold water and let them stand overnight; the leaves will open up. Then drain, squeeze thoroughly to remove excess water, discard any stems or tough parts, and chop finely.

There’s no unique recipe for the dressing, but between my Burmese cookbooks and the interwebs, here’s what I came up with for an amount sufficient to dress a medium sized handful of leaves. Combine thoroughly:

3 Tbl very garlicky garlic oil
3 Tbl fresh lime juice
1 Tbl fish sauce
½ tsp salt
½ tsp sugar
a little ngapi (a spicy Burmese shrimp paste), to taste

Marinate the tea leaves in the mixture for at least one day in the refrigerator, two if you want them to get down and get funky. If they didn’t taste fermented before, they will now. After they’ve surrendered to the marinade, drain them well, and if you like, chop them a bit more, even as fine as pesto, but I prefer them with a little more definition.

And then ya got yer crunchies. Again, there’s no set ingredient list, but I played around with a mixture of the following:

Fried garlic and fried onion (you can buy those two in plastic jars in any Asian market)

Fried broad beans and toasted soybeans (again, available in bags at any Asian market) plus peanuts and sesame seeds

Briefly fry the legumes and sesame seeds in a little oil (I used peanut oil), just enough to give them some color, enhance the flavor and add a little extra crunch. Drain on paper towels and cool completely. (The sesame seeds brown fastest so add them a little later and be vigilant.) I added this step because the contents of the bags of crunchies in the kits always seem to be a little oily, in a good way. Test for salt, but it will probably be okay.

Finally, the salad component. I used shredded napa cabbage (savoy works too) and halved grape tomatoes. I also soaked some dried shrimp in hot water for a few minutes and added them to the mix. I’ve seen lahpet thoke made with dried anchovies, but I already had enough crunch and salt and wanted a different texture to complement the funkiness element. (Speaking of funkiness, dried shrimp powder also makes a good addition.) Depending upon your tolerance for heat, you can add some chopped green bird’s-eye chilies.

In Myanmar’s state of Shan where it’s called Niang Ko, tea leaf salad includes cilantro, scallion and shredded fresh ginger and since I like those in this recipe, I incorporated them as well. Further, in Shan they mix everything together for serving, which is what I did rather than keeping the elements discrete; you may serve them separately and combine them at the table if you wish. Garnish with lime wedges.

What’s that you say? You’d rather not go to the fuss and bother of making your own or even buying a ready-made kit? No problem. I suggest you hustle over to the recently opened Burmese restaurant called Together at 2325 65th Street in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. The chef-owner, known as Oscar, hails from Myanmar and makes lahpet thoke (and everything else on the menu – which you should also try) better than I ever will. Oscar, I bow to your talent and expertise. Now it’s our job to help keep you in business!

 
 

Faking Peking Duck

Duck Market

Before we expose this canard canard (got that one out of the way early!), let’s be clear that there is a significant difference between a proper rendering of Genuine Peking Duck and The Dish We’re About to Make.

Genuine Peking Duck is eminently shareable, incredibly impressive, and absolutely delicious.

Step One: The Chinese tai see foo (master chef) starts with a breed of duck (Pekin) that is specially raised for this dish. After plucking, eviscerating, and general cleaning, the duck is scalded in boiling water, dried, and air is pumped under the skin. Traditionally, the chef blows into a small hole that has been punched in the skin at the base of the neck, thus separating the skin from the meat (yes, essentially it’s a duck balloon) and then it’s tied off. This procedure ensures that the skin will be crispy because that’s what this dish is all about. The duck is then refrigerated for 24 hours. From there, it’s coated with a sugar-based glaze – maltose, honey, there is some latitude here – that coaxes the skin to brown during cooking and hung in front of a fan for as much as another 24 hours. Finally the duck is roasted. (And that’s the short version that omits detail, although in no version do we omit the tail.) – End of Step One.

The Dish We’re About to Make is eminently shareable, incredibly impressive, and absolutely delicious.

Step One: Go to your local Chinatown and purchase one of the Cantonese roast ducks you see hanging in the window. – End of Step One.

So you see why we’re Faking Peking Duck, right?

Note: as soon as you ask for a roast duck, the fellow behind the counter will take one down and brandish his cleaver in order to chop it up (for that is what one does with Cantonese style roast duck). STOP HIM! Perhaps he speaks English, or if not you can resort to sign language, or if you’re brave you can say “Mm sai jahm!” (Cantonese for “Don’t need to chop!”) – but you want it whole.

By the way, you might also see flattened ducks that look a little like Georgian Chicken Tabaka or like Daffy the time he didn’t get out of the way of the steamroller Bugs was driving. Those are pei-pa ducks, so called because of their resemblance to the Chinese banjo of the same name. Delicious as those BBQ ducks are, you don’t want one for this recipe. It also bears mention that the roast ducks have been more fully seasoned from within (think five spice, soy sauce, etc.) than true Peking Duck, so the flavor of the meat will be a little different.

At this point, the recipes converge and we can delve into presentation and construction.

In addition to the duck, you’ll need:
Moo Shu ShellsBaoHoisin
• Chinese pancakes (bing) for steaming. Moo shu wrappers are perfect; most likely they’re available at a store near where you buy the duck. White Chinese buns (bao) are great too.

• Hoisin sauce: I generally mix the hoisin with a little honey to tame its intensity and add a little sweetness. Same store.

• Scallions: slice into long julienne strips (about 4 inches).

• Cucumber: remove the seeds (even from a seedless) and slice as you did the scallions.

Preparation:
Whole Duck 3Duck Skin
Remove the skin from the duck. (I generally make one long slice down the middle, breast side up, and slip the skin off by sliding a finger between the meat and the skin, working my way around the duck. It’s surprisingly easy, but don’t worry if it doesn’t come off in one piece; you’re going to cut it up anyway.) Scrape away most of the fat adhering to the skin; it’s fine to leave a little.

Next, remove the meat from the carcass. You can either julienne it like the scallions and cucumbers (prettier) or just slice pieces against the grain (better from a culinary standpoint because the meat will be even more tender).

Now as I said at the outset, this is a trick, albeit a delicious one. Remember that genuine Peking Duck is all about the crispy skin and what you’ve got here is a succulent but flaccid roast duck. So here’s my secret: put the skin, fatty side down, in a pan and heat in a 275° oven for about 10 minutes. Remove from the oven; the skin will be only a little crisper than when it started out, but stay with me. Place the warm skin between layers of paper towels and set a plate on top to keep it flat. When the skin is cool, use kitchen shears to cut into small pieces (about 3″ x 1″). As the pieces air dry, they’ll get even crisper.

Steam the pancakes (or buns) according to package instructions. If you don’t have a steamer you can improvise one by setting a covered colander over a pot of boiling water. Incidentally, although the duck meat is usually served at room temperature, I like to warm it up in the steamer at the same time the pancakes are steaming.

Assembly:
Duck PresentationDuck AssemblyDuck Assembled
Now you’re ready to commence Faking Peking Duck. Apply a little of the hoisin/honey mixture to a steamed pancake. Add some meat, scallion, cucumber, and crispy skin. Roll up the pancake burrito style (fold up a flap from the bottom, then roll horizontally) and enjoy.

Of course, if this were the real deal, the duck would be used for two additional courses, one where the meat is part of a stir fry, minced or perhaps in a noodle dish (it might not even make an appearance in the pancake), and one where the carcass has been used to make soup. You can do all that if you want to, but we’re keeping this simple, right?

And I recommend that you do keep it on a small scale; you may find that it’s a perfect dish for two – eminently shareable, incredibly impressive, and absolutely delicious (see above). It doesn’t even have to be Valentine’s Day: if the setting is enchanting, and if you’re dining with the right Very Special Person, this could be the beginning of a most romantic evening. Share it – along with a bottle of red – with someone you love.

Trust me, this dish is decidedly seducktive.

 

Pom and Circumstance

The annual August celebration of Suriname Day at Roy Wilkins Park in St. Albans, Queens seemed remote – certainly On Beyond Z-Train, not to mention the E and the J – but I had never experienced Surinamese food and the perfect circumstances through which I could explore it prevailed.

Occupying a tiny corner of northeast South America, Suriname was settled by the British but taken over by the Dutch (it’s the official language) in the 17th century. Demographically diverse, its cuisine promised influences from indigenous peoples, East Indians, West Africans, Javanese, Chinese, Brazilians, Portuguese, and Jews, not to mention the Dutch; and since for all intents and purposes it is culturally Caribbean, I anticipated a serious geographical culinary contribution as well. I was not disappointed.

In addition to numerous rice dishes, some of the fare I sampled (see below) included salt fish and spicy chicken gizzard and liver, bakabana (fried plantain with spicy peanut sauce), trie and telo (anchovies and cassava/yuca)…
Saltfish and Spicy Chicken Gizzard and LiverBakabanaAnchovies and Yuca

…and pom.

Pom? I was familiar with the others in one incarnation or another (although certainly cloaked under unfamiliar aliases here) but pom? Hardly obscure at this venue, it seemed that every table was offering their version of the dish.
PomPom 2

Subsequent research revealed that pom is a sine qua non of festive occasions in Suriname, as the expression “without pom there is no birthday” makes abundantly clear. Made from grated pomtayer (the tuber/corm of Xanthosoma sagittifolium) plus chicken and citrus juice (often orange) along with onions, tomatoes, and various seasonings, the dish is baked until it’s GBD (golden brown and delicious).

I took my place in line anticipating my first taste of pom. The flavor was sweet, the texture about what you’d expect from a mashed yam as it coddled the flavorful chunks of chicken buried within. It was wonderful. My fellow food adventurer, having disappeared as I was waiting, returned with another version. It was better than the first. This humble dish was etching itself indelibly on my culinary sense memory. I queued up at another booth now, eager to try a third version. A brief eternity later, it was my turn. Pointing at the tray filled with golden brown deliciousness, I gushed, “One please; I love pom!” fairly swooning.

At that point my buddy stepped up behind me and intoned to the woman behind the table, “He means having tasted it for the first time today, he loves it.”

My cover blown, I confessed, “He’s right. But it was love at first sight. Or first taste actually. Can you dig that?” I asked the vendor.

“Mm-hmm,” she smiled knowingly.

I clutched my styrofoam trays of precious pomish treasure and hurried home to attempt to recreate this wonder. But where would I locate pomtayer? That turned out to be the easy part. Yautía (preferably the red/pink variety), also known as malanga, is the moniker under which I’d find it in this area; one could use taro root in a pinch, but I think that might be straying a bit far from the original. The hard part, it turns out, was unearthing a recipe. Usually bursting with helpful culinary instructions for every dish imaginable (and some not so much), the internet had surprisingly few offerings, each different from the last. The “various seasonings” I referred to above are the key. One used pickles, another rum, yet another called for salt pork; some were Jewish inflected, some Chinese, some Javanese, some Hindu. Like the pom at the festival, I could see that these would all be radically different from each other. Once again, I found myself in my kitchen/lab reverse engineering a recipe relying as much on my taste buds as the web and striving for deliciousness and authenticity. I’m pleased to report that my efforts were rewarded with a dish that met my expectations. As a matter of fact, I was so pleased with it that I’m happy to share it with you.

Leave me a comment, and the recipe is yours.