Friday, 30 August 2013

Shwe Lan Excerpt: Laphet

In this excerpt from the book, we pick up an entry from our FOOD chapter. Following is a short piece about the place of Laphet in Burmese society:
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“Tea is believed by some to be a gift of the gods. It is an essential item in propitiating nats or spirits. It also, along with a quid of betel, forms part and parcel of ceremonial offerings in Buddhist rituals as well as on ceremonial occasions such as weddings, novitiation ceremonies, ear-boring ceremonies. In courts of Myanmar kings, parties to a dispute ate pickled tea together before the judge as a token of having reached settlement. The losing party paid what is known as Kwan-bo, literally 'the price of betel' to the judge. A special officer collected these fees. He was called a Kwan-bo-htein, literally ‘officer in charge of kwan-bo, the old counterpart of court fees.’ ” U Tin U, Myanmar Memorabilia

Pickled Tea Leaf Salad (Lahpet): Pickled or fermented tea is arguably the most important dish in Burmese cuisine. No doubt you will encounter it frequently in your travels, as it is a common snack to offer guests.

Although laphet refers only to the pickled green tea leaves, it is almost never served alone. Often presented in a lacquer bowl, laphet comes surrounded by various condiments, including peanuts, toasted sesame, dried shrimp, fried peas, roasted beans, tomatoes, and shredded ginger. Another popular version is laphet mixed with the above condiments, and served like a salad with fresh tomatoes, garlic, chilies and other vegetables. It can also be mixed with rice to give flavor and sustenance.

In the traditional method, after the tea leaves are picked, they are steamed and then mashed by hand on bamboo platforms. The mashed tea is then placed in a large hole in the ground that has been lined with bamboo and fresh tree leaves. After being spread evenly and tamped down hard, a heavy wooden lid is placed on top, with large stones added to increase the weight. Most tea in Myanmar comes from Shan State, to be used for laphet as well as drunk with hot water.

Laphet is sold in bulk in the markets, often with sealed packets of the proper condiments, and is perfect for taking home as a gift or for your own consumption. Though it is fermented, laphet does not have a strong taste, and the fact that it comes drizzled with sesame oil and mixed with salty, crunchy peanuts and peas makes it quite an appealing snack. While laphet can be enjoyed as a tasty snack to share between friends or guests, it is also frequently offered in formal ceremonies. In times past, the parties of a lawsuit would share laphet to symbolize the end of the dispute. Some students favor them when studying late into the night as it is known to be high in caffeine as well. Packets of laphet used to be handed out to announce a couple's betrothal, and served as quasi-wedding invitations. If a man is embarrassed to express himself, sending a tea packet will gently get the message across. As the Burmese saying goes: Lu ma daq thaw ley, leq peq thout daq. “If the man doesn’t know how to do it, the tea packet does.” Indeed, no Burmese ceremony or celebration, whether religious or secular, would be complete without plenty of laphet.

J. George Scott even notes the use of lahpet in helping one to change their name. In The Burman, he writes: “Sometimes when a boy grows up he does not like the name his parents gave him. He can then change it by a very simple process. He makes up a number of packets of le'-pet and sends round a friend to deliver them to all his acquaintances and relations. The messenger goes to the head of the house and says: ‘I have come from Maung Shwe Pyin (Mr. Golden Stupid). He is not to be called by that name any more. When you invite him call him Maung Hkyaw Hpe (Mr. Celebrated Father). Be good enough to eat this pickled tea.’ ”

A villager in the Shan Hills