Lahpet, a traditional delicacy of Myanmar, is a fermented or pickled tea that can be spelled variously as laphet, laphat, lephet, leppet, or letpet in English. This unique delicacy is not only consumed as a drink but is also used in food preparations. Laphet is considered a national delicacy that plays a significant role in Burmese society and is often served as a gesture of hospitality to guests visiting a home.
In Myanmar, laphet is so highly regarded that it is often compared to other beloved foods, with the saying, “Of all the fruit, the mango’s the best; of all the meat, pork’s the best; and of all the leaves, lahpet’s the best”. In the West, laphet is most commonly enjoyed in “tea leaf salad” (လက်ဖက်သုပ်).
Burmese tea comes in three main forms, each with a distinct purpose:
- Lahpet chauk (လက်ဖက်ခြောက်) is dried tea leaves that are commonly used to make green tea. The resulting tea can be served plain (yei-nway gyan) or with pickled tea (lahpet-yei gyan). Green tea is the national drink in Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist country that has no other national drink apart from palm wine.
- Acho gyauk (အချိုခြောက်) is black tea that is usually sweetened with milk and sugar to make sweet tea (lahpetyei gyo).
- Lahpet so (လက်ဖက်စို) specifically refers to pickled tea, which is commonly used in tea leaf salad.
Burmese tea is divided into seven quality grades: ‘Golden bracelet’ (ရွှေလက်ကောက်), ‘Extraordinary weft’ (အထူးရှယ်), ‘Weft’ (ရှယ်), ‘Top grade’ (ထိပ်စ), ‘Medium top grade’ (အလတ်ထိပ်စ), ‘Medium grade’ (အလတ်စ), and ‘Low grade’ (အောက်စ).
Myanmar has a unique and rich tea culture dating back to prehistoric times, with indigenous tribes pickling and fermenting tea leaves inside bamboo tubes, baskets, and pots. King Alaungsithu introduced tea to Myanmar during the Pagan dynasty in the 1100s, and it became prevalent in the Burmese royal court. Over time, pickled tea replaced alcohol for ceremonial use among observant Buddhists. Tea cultivation spread throughout the northern Shan States, and by the late 1700s, tea had become a significant export for Burma. Today, teahouses remain an essential part of Myanmar’s culture, and lahpet (pickled tea) continues to unite people and provide a sense of community.
Myanmar is home to tea, specifically the Camellia sinensis and Camellia assamica species, which are grown in various regions including the northern Shan State, Mogok in the Mandalay Region, and Kengtung in the eastern Shan State. The tea is harvested between April and October, with the Zayan leaves making up the majority of the harvest.
Tea cultivation spans over 700 square kilometers of land in Myanmar, with a yearly yield of 60,000-70,000 tons of fresh product. The majority of the harvest, 69.5%, is used for green tea, while 19.5% is used for black tea, and 20% is used for pickled tea. The country consumes 52% green tea, 31% black tea, and 17% pickled tea annually.
The traditional process for fermenting laphet involves three steps: pre-fermentation, fermentation, and modification. Only the tender juvenile tea leaves and leaf buds are selected for fermenting, while the rest are dried. After picking, the tea leaves are steamed for about five minutes before they are either dried or fermented. Young leaves are then packed into bamboo vats or clay pots, placed in pits, and pressed by heavy weights to extract water. The fermentation process is monitored regularly, and the pulp may require re-steaming. The anaerobic fermentation is driven by naturally forming lactic acid bacteria and takes about three to four months to complete. The pulp’s changes in color, texture, and acidity indicate different stages of fermentation. Once fermentation is complete, the pulp is washed, massaged, and drained. Finally, the laphet is flavored with minced garlic, ground chili, salt, lemon juice, and peanut oil.
Lahpet is a popular Burmese dish made from pickled tea leaves and is served in two main forms: A-hlu lahpet, which is mainly ceremonial, and Mandalay lahpet, which is served with meals and is more popular. Mandalay lahpet is traditionally served in a shallow lacquerware dish with a lid and several compartments called a lahpet ohk. Pickled tea flavored with sesame oil is put in the central compartment, while other compartments may include ingredients such as fried garlic, chickpeas, shrimp, ginger, and coconut. Lahpet is a common offering at Buddhist ceremonies, weddings, and nat worship. Lahpet thohk is a pickled tea salad that is very popular across Myanmar. It is prepared by mixing the ingredients of Mandalay lahpet and adding fresh tomatoes, garlic, green chilis, and shredded cabbage, and is dressed with fish sauce, sesame or peanut oil, and lime juice. Commercial brands of lahpet include Ayee Taung, Shwe Toak, Yuzana, and Pinpyo Ywetnu.
In March of 2009, the Ministry of Health in Myanmar made a concerning announcement that a chemical dye called auramine O, which is not allowed in food, was found in 43 different brands of lahpet. This issue was attributed to wholesale dealers cutting corners by using cheaper chemical dyes instead of the traditional food dyes. As a result, the Malaysian government prohibited the sale of these brands of lahpet, while Singapore banned 20 different brands of lahpet from Myanmar, including eight varieties sold by Yuzana that had not been labeled unsafe by Burmese authorities. It’s worth noting that Thailand, which has a significant Burmese population, did not announce any restrictions on lahpet brands. The tea industry suffered a considerable drop in lahpet sales as a result of these developments.