When Kalvin and Poe Myint, co-owners of Top Burmese, opened their Northwest Portland restaurant, they knew they needed to serve green tea leaf salad. After developing a fanbase for Myanmar classics via a small takeout counter, Top Burmese took over the cozy space formerly occupied by Kim Jong Smokehouse, where pictures of Burmese locations like Inlay Lake hang on the walls. When the green tea leaf salad arrives at diners’ tables, it’s a multicolored molehill: the bright green of the cabbage, the red tomatoes, the pops of brown from peanuts and various seeds, and dark splotches of fermented tea leaves. “When it comes to popular Burmese dishes, the tea leaf salad is definitely on the top of the list,” he says. “It originated in Burma, and you won’t find it anywhere else.”
Burmese food is common in the San Francisco area, Kalvin Myint’s home before moving to Portland more than 15 years ago. In 2003, he and his wife started serving Burmese food in Portland from a food cart called Taste of Rangoon; unlike in the Bay Area, Burmese cuisine was exceptionally difficult to find in Portland restaurants or food carts at that time. The Myints decided to close the cart in 2004 and work on other areas of their career while still learning about the food culture of Myanmar, as well as the restaurant industry.
Since then, Portland’s restaurant market has expanded to include more Southeast Asian cuisines, beyond the several Thai and Vietnamese restaurants found throughout the city. By the time the Myints opened Top Burmese, Portland was home to everything from an Indonesian coffee house to a Laotian restaurant and taproom. Still, Burmese food remained underrepresented in the restaurant and food-cart scene in Portland. Now, a year after the original Top Burmese opened in Portland, tea leaf salad — and Burmese food in general — has become somewhat easier to find in the Portland area. Top Burmese’s version, made with peanuts as opposed to the traditional fried broad beans, now has a sibling across the river, a version served at the food cart Burmese Delight. Burmese Delight’s comes vegan or not, with both peanuts and fried broad beans.
In Myanmar, tea leaf salad is everywhere. Diplomats eat from ornate platters of the salad at important meetings, while college students tuck in to the fermented leaves and accoutrement to get a caffeine boost. Myint started eating the dish as an energy boost in his late teens — his mother would prepare it as a snack for his late-night studies. Over a green tea leaf salad and tea at Top Burmese, Myint described how Burmese chefs actually serve green tea leaf salad in a round tray with different compartments called laphet ohk: Diners receive a small spoon and pick out which ingredients they would like to add to the salad — legumes, fried garlic, and sesame are common standbys, but chile and even mangos can be used. This ceremonial style of eating is called ahlu laphet. “In the ancient days, when Burma wasn’t united, different little kingdoms and tribes would use the ceremonial way of eating after they would make a treaty,” Myint explains. “If you don’t like the nuts, you can just eat around it. It’s very diplomatic.” In the Yangon style, named for the region in Myanmar, all of the ingredients are mixed together; it’s commonly served with rice.
All of the tea leaves used in the salad at Top Burmese come from Myanmar. Myint makes trips back to the country, occasionally timing them for when the tea leaves are ready to be picked. The plants grow in the mountain regions of Myanmar, where the climates have the necessary amount of humidity and sunshine. In the country’s Shan region, farmers pick the leaves from April to October, steaming the leaves right after they are picked to soften them. Then, they are rolled with large wooden rollers to get the excess water out. The tea leaves are put in burlap sacks and kept in underground storage, rooms that look like wells about eight feet deep. The tea makers then put heavy rocks on top of the bags to remove even more water, as the leaves ferment and oxidize. The bags stay underground for two to three months, until the tea leaves are ready to be eaten.
Myint buys the fermented leaves this way, but he would like to try fermenting tea leaves here in Oregon — Minto Island Growers in Salem is a potential source of tea leaves, but they usually sell out quickly. For now, the Myints are focusing on a different element of the salad: the legumes. This year, the Myints are planning on adding fried broad beans to the salad, as well as toasted chickpeas and a new dressing. Later this year, they’re also hoping to start serving the salad in the traditional, ceremonial style, customizable with small portions of each of the elements.
Today, green tea leaf salad continues to bring people into Top Burmese. “It’s sort of like a gateway drug to our restaurant,” Myint says. “Our customers love it because of the unique taste and [because] it really goes well with the dishes that we have.” Who knows if locals are eating it for peacemaking or all-nighters, but the dish is finding its own place in Portland’s dining market.