The History of Myanmar Tea Lahpet

Myanmar’s rich tea culture dates back to prehistoric times, with indigenous tribes pickling and fermenting tea leaves inside bamboo tubes, baskets, and pots. Unlike most world languages, the Burmese word for “tea” is not derived from the Chinese word for tea, reflecting the country’s unique tea-drinking history.

According to Burmese folklore, King Alaungsithu introduced tea to Myanmar during the Pagan dynasty in the 1100s. Tea drinking became prevalent in the Burmese royal court during his reign, with evidence of royal teacups and tea servers. Over time, pickled tea replaced alcohol for ceremonial use among observant Buddhists as the country adopted more austere forms of Theravada Buddhism.

To meet growing demand, tea cultivation spread throughout the northern Shan States after 1500. A Buddhist reform movement led by monks and laymen succeeded in suppressing the consumption of alcohol in public ceremonies in favor of eating pickled tea between the late 1500s and early 1600s. By the late 1700s, tea had become a significant export for Burma, with cultivation primarily in the Palaung principality of Tawngpeng. Mandalay Palace, built during the late Konbaung era, even had a Tea Pavilion where young pages carried messages and prepared tea.

Throughout Myanmar’s pre-colonial era, lahpet, or pickled tea, was a symbolic peace offering between warring kingdoms. It was traditionally exchanged and consumed after settling a dispute. Even during colonial times, lahpet was served after a civil court judge made a verdict. Eating lahpet symbolized a formal acceptance of the verdict.

Today, Myanmar’s tea culture continues to thrive, with teahouses playing an essential role in society. While the younger generation prefers modern cafes and bars, the older generation still frequents teahouses. Some of the teahouses have become gentrified, catering to Myanmar’s emerging middle class. However, to experience authentic teahouse culture, venture to Yangon’s urban edges to find small teahouses with plastic chairs and tables tucked under awnings and around hidden bends. These teahouses are open every day, some even 24/7, and are popular places to go after other eateries have closed. The tea is central to the experience, and plates piled with samosas and snacks are available for nibbling.

Myanmar’s tea culture remains a vital part of its history, offering a glimpse into the grassroots culture of the country. Whether enjoyed in a teahouse or as a peace offering between warring kingdoms, lahpet continues to unite people and provide a sense of community.

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