Up in San Francisco, the signature dish at the popular network of restaurants called Burma Superstar is a tangy, nutty salad so uniquely delicious, it should be illegal. In some Asian countries, it is.
Because in addition to mixed ingredients such as peanuts, shredded cabbage, fried lentils, diced tomatoes, and various seeds, the salad also contains the pickled tea leaves called Laphet Tote, a longtime staple of Burmese/Myanmarese cuisine and culture. Leaves that were banned by the Singapore and Malaysia Ministries of Health in March of 2009, when Burma announced that 43 brands of laphet had tested positive for traces of a banned chemical dye linked to liver and kidney damage, and cancer. (The FDA has not implemented a ban of Myanmar-produced laphet in the US.)
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Liver and kidney damage aren't high on our To Do list. But damn it, there's just something about that salad.The defiant, gritty crunch of the nuts and seeds between your molars; the pungent, salty kick. To describe the dish to someone who's never sampled it is a stubbornly circular endeavor--there's simply nothing like tea leaf salad except tea leaf salad.
Some cravings cannot be ignored. But apparently, neither can the Ministry of Health--the stuff isn't so easy to track down. Culver City Burmese Jasmine Market doesn't sell tea leaf salad. Or Mutiara Food & Market in Inglewood.
Cross the 405, however, and the Ministry of Health's grip on our taste buds is blessedly more lax. Golden Triangle Restaurant in Whittier and Yoma Myanar in Monterey Park both offer estimable versions.
Unless you happen to work for the Ministry of Health. In which case, just kidding.