What makes a good salad?
Well, first and foremost, it should be delicious. What’s the point of eating something that doesn’t taste good? Secondly, it also helps if it is healthy. I’ve never understood the “salads” that feature pathetic, wilted lettuce covered in creamy sauces, cheese and bacon. Sure, I love cheese and bacon too, but who are you kidding? Just go eat a cheeseburger. No one is going to judge you.
In our recent trip to San Francisco, Katie’s sister Deanna brought us out for Burmese food at a place called Burma Superstar. Now, any place that has an hour long wait on a Tuesday night has got to be good, right? Knowing very little about Burma (or Myanmar), let alone their cuisine, I took to Google while we waited for our table. Bordered by Thailand, Bangladesh, India, China and Laos, I started to salivate at the thought of the potential combinations of flavours I was about to encounter.
When you get inside, you immediately feel the authentic vibe of the place. It’s loud, busy, and smells amazing. Since Deanna had been there several times before, we let her do the ordering for us. She insisted that, if nothing else, we got the fermented green tea salad. It’s apparently one of their signature dishes. Sounds interesting, okay let’s do it.
I had no idea what I was in for. It is honestly one of the most unique, flavourful and delicious salads I have ever had in my entire life. It’s got it all – sweet, spicy, crunchy, savoury, and tangy. The array of flavours is insane, from the freshly squeezed lemon juice to the fried garlic to the roasted peanuts. But above all, the fermented tea leaves are what really make this salad special. That’s right, fermented green tea leaves. The folks at Burma Superstar actually go to Burma 7 or 8 times a year to bring back their supply. Now that’s dedication. After we left, I knew I had some homework to do. I was determined to learn how to make this salad and to share it with all of you.
Burmese Tea Leaf Salad
1/2 cup loose green tea leaves
1 lemon; 1/2 juiced and 1/2 sliced into wedges for serving
12 cloves garlic, minced (Yes, 12.)
1/2 jalapeño pepper, diced and divided into two
1 tbsp ginger, minced
1 bunch green onions, diced and divided into two
1 large head of romaine lettuce, roughly chopped
1 cup grape tomatoes, halved
1/2 cup roasted peanuts
1/4 cup sesame seeds
1/2 cup green lentils
1 cup peanut oil (for frying)
2 tbsp sesame oil (for frying)
Let’s begin with the fermented tea leaves. Note that you will have to do this step at least two days in advance, so plan ahead. As I mentioned earlier, the tea leaves are the heart and soul of this salad, so give this step a little extra attention.
Okay, begin by sorting through your tea leaves and removing any twigs or stems so that you’re just left with the leaves. Pour hot, not quite boiling, water over the leaves and let them steep for 10 minutes. Drain the leaves and then soak them in cold water for 1 hour. Drain the leaves again in a fine mesh strainer, pressing down to remove as much liquid as possible.
Transfer your leaves to a food processor or blender with the juice of 1/2 a lemon, 4 cloves of garlic, half of your diced jalapeño pepper, half the green onions, and the 1 tbsp of ginger. Blend until you have a thick, smooth pesto-like sauce. Transfer to an airtight container and store in a cool, dark place like a pantry for 2 days. Let the fermentation begin!
Wait two days.
Finally, it’s salad day!
Start by boiling your lentils as per the package directions. If you bought canned, pre-soaked lentils, then you’re already good to go. Heat the peanut oil in a deep saucepan over high heat for frying. Carefully place your lentils in the hot oil – it should sizzle immediately, and bubble up a bit. Slowly stir the lentils for 4-5 minutes as they fry until they are nice and crispy, but not burnt. Remove from heat, and using a slotted spoon, transfer the fried lentils to a bed of paper towel to cool and dry.
Next, fry your garlic by combining the remaining 8 cloves and the sesame oil in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Just like the lentils, fry until brown and crispy, stirring often to ensure that it doesn’t burn. Set aside.
Time to assemble this masterpiece. Using a large shallow bowl or serving plate, build the base of your salad with the chopped romaine. As seen in the photo below, begin to add your toppings in individual clumps around the outer edge of the plate – the halved grape tomatoes, sesame seeds, roasted peanuts, fried garlic, diced green onions, diced jalapeños, lemon wedges, and the crunchy fried lentils. Next, add a generous scoop of your fermented tea leaves right in the middle of the salad – this is your centrepiece.
To complete the salad, squeeze the lemon wedges all over, and then using two forks, carefully begin to spread the tea leaves outwards, and then pull the other ingredients inwards, tossing until fully mixed.
Serve, dig in, and enjoy my new favourite dish.