The Secrets of Burma Superstar's Cult Classic Tea Leaf Salad

The Secrets of Burma Superstar's Cult Classic Tea Leaf Salad


For the last decade or so, Clement Street's Burma Superstar has drawn the devoted, who wait for an hour or more, to dine at the cult favorite eatery. But in fact, the restaurant had been a quieter neighbor in the Richmond since 1992. Why the sudden fuss? It has something to do with that now-legendary tea leaf salad.

When Desmond Htunlin and his wife, Jocelyn Lee, took over the restaurant's ownership in 2001, the couple aimed to bring the place into the modern world. With backgrounds in finance (him) and design (her), the couple set out for success with a revamp of the restaurant's interior (comfort and cleanliness over kitsch) as well as its menu, which would become more accessible to the western palate (read: a lighter hand with such strong flavors as fish sauce and dried shrimp).

But it was a tweak to the classic tea leaf salad that would create instant obsession among the restaurant's new regulars.

Called lahpet thoke in Burmese, the tea leaf salad is a dish fit for important occasions, such as weddings and religious ceremonies, but is also a popular stret food. Green tea leaves—fermented by a special process in which the leaves are soaked in water, densely packed in banana leaves, then buried underground to be aged—are the starring ingredient. Traditionally, the leaves are placed in a lacquered vessel with compartments containing fried garlic, roasted peanuts, sesame seeds, and chilies, amongst other goodies. Shredded cabbage typically makes up the “salad" component.

In place of cabbage, Htunlin and Lee smartly opted for chopped romaine lettuce. And instead of whole tea leaves, Htunlin created a paste of sorts, blitzing the fermented tea leaves (which he now imports from Burma by the shipping container-full) along with some canola oil, lemon, and salt to effectively create a dressing. The result is much more akin to the western idea of salad, and makes a once unfamiliar dish approachable.

(Photo by Omar Mamoon)

Almost 15 years later, Htunlin and Lee have three Superstar locations, two of them in the East Bay. And last year, they opened Burma Love on Valencia Street. But they aren't stopping there.

Now anyone can make the Burma Superstar tea leaf salad at home thanks to the pair's latest venture into packaged foods. You can shop for their bottled dressing and crunchy accoutrements at local markets including Rainbow Grocery, Goodeggs, and Bi-Rite. // Burma Superstar (multiple locations),

Burma Supertar's tea leaf salad is #38 on 7x7's Big Eat: 100 Things to Eat in San Francisco Before You Die. See how many you've tasted, by clicking here.

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