It was during university in Singapore that my concept of salad was completely uprooted. Coming from Vietnam, where salad is usually served as a side, I found my concept of the dish limited to a mixture of greens tossed in tangy dressing. But my job at a small bistro broadened my understanding of how different combination of proteins, grains, dressing, and crunchies could turn a salad into a substantial meal.
But when my best friend from Burma introduced me to her country’s cuisine, insisting that I try out their salad, my perception of the dish was again turned on its head. The first Burmese salad I tasted was sold in a small shop at the very end corner of Peninsula Plaza, a popular hangout place for Burmese residents in Singapore. The shop was divided into two sections: one for rice and the other for salad, always crowded with a long line of waiting customers.
My friend and I asked for the country’s iconic dish: lahpet thoke (lahpet: pickled tea leaves, thoke: salad). Tending the salad bar was a lady who moved with much agility in the tiny work space. She threw a handful of shredded cabbage, lahpet, tomato slices, fried beans, and a few spoonfuls of oil and fish sauce into an aluminium bowl that I doubted had been cleaned from the previous salad. Then, using a pair of yellowish plastic gloves, she squeezed one quarter of a lime, made a few tosses, and transferred the whole bowl onto a plastic plate, passed it to the cashier, and carried on with her next order. The finished dish looked like a slimy mass of overmixed leaves, scoring zero in the presentation department.
But it was different: All the ingredients were thoroughly coated with that pickled juice from the tea leaves, while the crunchy beans added texture. The taste was subtly bitter, sour, and salty. I came back to try more after that first encounter, each time less concerned about the color of the gloves or the state of the mixing bowl. My relationship with that slimy mass took off from there.
When I finally visited Burma for the first time in 2013, I was fascinated by, among other things, the versatility of the salads. You can find them on the table any time of the day. A typical meal might include a curry or gravy-based dish, some soup, boiled vegetables to dip in nga phi (fish paste), and a plant-based salad usually intended to lessen the heaviness from the curry. At the end of a meal, restaurants provide a lacquer vintage box that contains lahpet and fried beans for customers to serve themselves. As they sip tea and munch on lahpet thoke, the diners wrap up whatever thoughts were left over from their meal. Out on the street, it’s common to find food carts crowded with groups of people savoring salad while observing passing cars, chatting just about everything under the sun.
While the most popular order is lahpet thoke, you can also find nga phe thoke (fish cake salad), khauk swe thoke (noodle salad), andgin thoke (ginger salad). But all are served as an epilogue to a meal or a snack, seldom as an individual dish. It's something that you eat with your friends, a catalyst that enriches your conversation.
After trying out an endless number of Burmese salads from my own kitchen, established restaurants, and roadside food stalls, I've come up with a structure for this versatile yet forgiving dish:
- The hero: pick one main ingredient, which will determine name of your salad, like lahpet, tofu, tomatoes, noodle, boiled pig head, fish cake, poached chicken, or even lime pulp
- The base: cabbage, lettuce, shallot
- Something pungent: shrimp paste, fish sauce, dried shrimp, coarsely ground dried shrimp
- Something crunchy: ground roasted peanut, assorted fried beans with sesame seeds, fried shallot
- And to seal all the flavors together: a squeeze of lime, a spoonful of peanut oil, and a good amount of tossing
You never have to worry about the ingredients not being fresh enough, since most of them can be stocked in the pantry. As long as you have a hero, you can make a salad. Unlike its Western counterparts, a Burmese salad does not boast vibrant greens. Sometimes, there's not even a single shade of green on the plate, and the closest thing to a vegetables is thin slices of raw shallot for cutting through the pungency of the fish sauce.
When I feel like snacking, I make myself a lahpet thoke with dried shrimp, chili flakes, and fried beans. Or I just completely replace the lahpet with tomato slices for a Burmese tomato salad—or at least a tomato salad with a Burmese flair. When I have more time, another combination that works well is fish cake and cucumber, which can be a wonderful side and a substantial, filling dish.
If you visit me out of the blue, I may not have cookies and milk or a bottle of wine, but I promise I will offer you salad, at which point you will feel nothing but admiration for my healthy lifestyle. But then, your heart may sink when I bring out a plate that contains fermented leaves and fried stuff.
But maybe Burmese don’t eat salads to be healthy. And maybe a Burmese salad does not epitomize “health” like its Western relatives. But a plate of Burmese salad is welcoming, warming, and unassuming, a plate over which our conversation begins.
- 200 grams cooked chicken (poached or roasted)
- 1/2 cup chopped cilantro leaves
- 2 hot chiles, like jalapeños, deseeded and thinly sliced
- 2 fresh shallots, thinly sliced
- 3 teaspoons lime juice
- 2 teaspoons fish sauce
- 1 teaspoon vegetable oil
- 2 tablespoons fried shallots
- Salt and pepper, to taste