A friend of mine thinks of Siem Reap as a border town. Not because it sits on any geographical border, but because of the curious mix of generations, cultures and customs that coexist within a few square kilometres. When I first arrived, I couldn’t have foreseen that a small Cambodian town would be the place I would learn to entertain guests in traditional Myanmar fashion, but that is what came to pass.
I planned a Thanksgiving dinner party at home but, with the holiday looming and pressure building, I needed a hostess role model. When Cho Cho, co-owner of Irrawaddi Myanmar Restaurant & Gallery on Wat Bo Road, had hosted me for dinner, she radiated a stately calm I resolved to imitate. She gave the appearance that everything was effortless, like eight steaming dishes had been served as if by magic.
This illusion of ease signifies a good host the world over, but in Myanmar it can be even more of a challenge. “In Myanmar, people just drop by,” she told me. And the key to pleasing unexpected guests, she explained, are summed up by the words laphet thote; a fermented pickled tea salad.
I believed her. Eating at Irrawaddi, I had experienced the salad’s simultaneously spicy and cooling, soft and crunchy, rich and refreshing qualities. In Myanmar, it is considered special. Cho Cho explained, you don’t offer special guests coffee; you offer them pickled tea salad.
Everyone knows how to make it (even young students who gulp it down to stay awake for all-night study sessions) but to a Western palate, it’s a mystery. I watched Simon, Irrawaddi’s chef, make a batch. It revolved around the leaves, ordered in from Myanmar preserved in a citrus juice. I went home armed with a bag of bitter, sodden leaves and a renewed determination to please any guest who came my way.
I put the leaves in the freezer and waited – but no one showed. So I took matters into my own hands: I soaked my leaves in hot water and pressed them to remove the bitterness, as Simon had taught me. Then I mixed them with salt, oil, tomato and cabbage, a deep-fried mixture of Myanmar nuts, sesame seeds, lime and chilli, and loaded the mess into a Tupperware container.
Cho Cho and Simon looked perplexed when I showed up at the restaurant demanding they taste my salad. After a bite Simon looked like he was trying not to gag. “It needs more oil,” he said. “But everything else is perfect!” Cho Cho, ever the hostess, thought I’d be offended. “He always uses too much oil,” she whispered – utterly untruly, but much appreciated nonetheless.
I’m not sure anyone from Myamar would be overly impressed. But it boosted my confidence. While I was scurrying around setting the Thanksgiving dinner table, I felt more relaxed knowing that I held a trump card – a bag of pickled tea leaves in the freezer – just in case.