What Makes the Tea Salad at Zin Zin’s Burmese Cuisine So Special?

The Local newsletter is your free, daily guide to life in Colorado. For locals, by locals. Sign up today! Colorado reminds Zin Zin Htun of Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), a country she left as a refugee. “I like it here a lot because my native town has a lot […]

Colorado reminds Zin Zin Htun of Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), a country she left as a refugee. “I like it here a lot because my native town has a lot of mountains. [Colorado] feels like home,” says Htun, who arrived in Denver with her husband and two young children in 2015. Although she became accustomed to the West’s landscapes and traditions, she soon realized that many people aren’t familiar with her birthplace. “I tell people I’m from Burma, and they’re like, What is that?” she says. Those reactions fueled Htun’s desire to teach locals about her roots by posting cooking videos on YouTube that featured foods she ate growing up. In 2021, she opened her own catering company, Zin Zin’s Burmese Cuisine, which gained a following at Front Range farmers’ markets and expanded into a ghost kitchen this September. At the takeout-only restaurant inside Town Center at Aurora, Htun stuffs mini samosas with potato, cabbage, and onion; simmers yellow split pea flour, sliced banana leaf stems, and catfish for mohinga noodle soup; and pan-fries keema paratha, a flatbread filled with ground beef, onions, mint, and tomatoes. It’s all satisfying, but we recommend starting your culinary tour with the lat phat toke, a tea leaf salad that’s often referred to as the national dish of Myanmar.

Htun imports whole green tea leaves from Myanmar and turns them into an earthy, tangy paste. After boiling and squeezing the excess liquid out of the leaves, she crushes them into a pulp using a mortar and pestle, adds minced garlic and lime juice, and lets the mixture ferment at room temperature for a few days. The dark green condiment is covered in vegetable oil and stored until ready to serve.

The chef shreds red and green cabbage and chops tomatoes and serrano peppers into bite-size pieces.

Big slices of toasted garlic deliver aromatic and sweet notes.

A hefty handful of Htun’s customized roasted nut and legume mix—which includes sunflower seeds, butter beans, chickpeas, peanuts, pumpkin seeds, cashews, and sesame seeds—brings crunch and depth to the dish.

All of the elements are arranged separately in takeout boxes so everything stays fresh and crispy in transit.

Htun urges customers to add the accompanying lime juice and fish sauce and then toss the salad with their hands, gently squeezing and dispersing the tea leaves with their fingers. This ensures every forkful is the ideal balance of salty, sour, spicy, and bitter—a trademark of her homeland’s cuisine.

This article was originally published in 5280 December 2022.

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