Monday, June 17, 2013

Teasanity, part 2

Today I invite you to explore tea in some of its lesser known forms, namely matcha, kombucha and laphet.


Tea is a substance that invites rituals.

The simplest and perhaps most common tea ritual for most Americans resembles that practiced by my in-laws every morning: heat a kettle, pour the hot water over the bag of Lipton in a mug, wait a couple of minutes, remove the bag, add a spoonful of sugar, and enjoy with toast and jam.

The Japanese, however, have taken the tea ritual to an art form. My knowledge of the elaborate tea ceremony is limited to reading about it, and I probably have a better chance of trying to stage a ceremony myself than I do of visiting Japan in the near future.

I could build this in the backyard:

Even if I never held a tea ceremony, it would be a terrific reading and writing nook.

The tea part of the ritual is easily accessible even in northern Michigan. Matcha, the powdered green tea used in the ceremony, is sold in specialty stores and online shops. Numerous retailers offer matcha starter sets with a bowl, a bamboo whisk and a tin of the powdered tea.

I add cooking grade matcha to smoothies. Numerous websites offer recipes featuring matcha, and you'll increasingly see it is an ingredient on restaurant menus.


A fermented beverage made from sweetened tea and a "scoby" of bacteria and yeast, kombucha is a drink of Chinese origin that apparently spread to Russia, and from there the rest of Europe, in the early 20th century. Adherents claim benefits ranging from weight loss to cancer cure; the mainstream medical community is skeptical.

Twenty years ago, kombucha was only available as a home-brew and generally required some old-fashioned networking (the kind that existed before the internet) to track down a scoby, or mother culture. Today kombucha can be purchased in the beverage section of your local health food store, where it has reached the level of a craze. But many people still choose to brew their own.

Finding recipes for kombucha is as easy as typing the name in a search engine. Getting the scoby is almost that easy. If you happen to be the kind of person whom other people suspect of brewing strange things at home, you'll likely be offered one from a friend or acquaintance. These things reproduce, so most kombucha brewers always have a "baby" to give away. I got mine from a neighbor who got it from her daughter's boyfriend.

Kombucha fermenting in a jar. Yeah, it looks nasty.
If your social circle doesn't include likely connections, mail-order cultures are available on the internet, even on Amazon. Kombucha experts say it may be possible occasionally to obtain a culture from a commercial beverage, such as the widely-available Synergy brand.

The fun of brewing kombucha is in the second fermentation for which you can add other flavorings and get creative. My neighbor blends cherry juice with her finished kombucha; I've been adding a little hibiscus tea to get a fizzy tart beverage that's more pleasing than the first ferment.


Finally, I'll mention a tea product that was unknown to me until about a week ago and now is at the top of the list of things I'm desperate to try.

I read about laphet in Sandor Katz' book, The Art of Fermentation, and was intrigued by the "explosion of flavor" he said he experienced when he first tasted these pickled tea leaves that are the basis of laphet thoke, a salad that is one of the signature dishes of Burma but nearly unknown in the United States.

Burma, or Myanmar, is slowly opening to tourism after decades as a closed society, so it is currently all the rage among adventurous travelers and foodies. Naomi Duguid's cookbook, Burma: Rivers of Flavor, was nominated for a 2013 James Beard award. And Anthony Bourdain traveled to Myanmar for the first episode of his new CNN show.

With all of this attention, one would expect laphet thoke to be popping up on all the trendy menus and home cooks finding laphet for sale across the interwebs. Not so. My initial research indicated I basically had three options if I wanted to sample this delicacy: travel to Burma, journey to San Francisco and wait in line for hours at the no-reservations Burma Superstar cafe, or mail-order laphet from London and make the salad myself.

My only planned travel is an August vacation to Montreal, so it occurred to me that Canada may have more lenient laphet importation policies and my whim to try this dish could be satisfied there. And yes, I discovered a new Burmese restaurant has opened in my favorite Montreal neighborhood!

But what happens if I become addicted to laphet thoke, as it seems has happened to so many customers of Burma Superstar? Sander Katz offered a possible method of obtaining a steady supply, as he mentioned in his book a friend is growing camellia sinensis on her Alabama farm to make her own laphet. I have relatives with southern gardens, and I've already started trying to persuade my siblings to plant tea shrubs. In the meantime, if anyone out there has a better idea, please leave a comment!

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