In celebration of our new salad collaboration with locally-renowned Burma Love Foods, we interviewed founder Desmond Tan to learn a bit more about the magic behind their famous tea leaf dressing, where their ingredients are grown, and how our companies are both aligned in sourcing the best quality ingredients while ensuring a sustainable supply chain.
Q: Why did you start Burma Love Foods?
A core menu item at our Burma Superstar Restaurants is the tea leaf salad—it has won many accolades (Sunset Magazine’s Best Salad of the West, Top 10 dish in the country according to Yelp). A lot of diners always asked us where they can get the dish at home. We saw that there was a demand for this beyond dining out, so we decided to create a product that allowed consumers to bring home the flavors of Burma for the first time.
Q: Could you tell us a little bit about the history of tea leaf salad and what makes it so special?
The fermented tea leaf salad is a national dish for people in Burma. It’s a dish everyone grew up with, eaten any time of day: as a snack with afternoon tea, as a post meal savory dessert, or even at formal occasions between world leaders. It’s a dish that’s presented when diplomacy and friendship is called for. It’s something that’s accessible to everyone in Burma and it’s uniquely Burmese. Nowhere else in the world do people eat their tea in this way.
Q: What do you think it is that makes Burma Love's Tea Leaf Salad so special?
Other fermented tea leaf dressings available have questionable ingredients; chemicals, loads of MSG, preservatives, and artificial colors added. But our tea leaves are naturally and ethically sourced. We also work with farmers directly to get the best quality tea leaves and process everything in our San Francisco manufacturing facility. The tea leaves we purchase are nicknamed the General’s Tea, called so because of its high quality. The flavor is stronger in the buds and leaves, which is what we use.
Q: Where in Burma is the tea leaf grown and what makes that environment optimal?
Our tea leaves are grown in the Shan State located in northern Burma. Located 6,000 feet above sea level, the cool climate of the Namshan mountains of Burma are arguably where the highest quality tea leaves originated from and are still found today.
Q: Why is it important to you that your farms are organic?
The area where we farm our tea leaves are all organic and bio-dynamic (meaning the land is not touched, you just pick from the plant, it’s not cultivated, fertilized, the soil isn’t altered). We hired an agricultural consultant to test the soils and to certify that the tea leaves are organic, which allows the tea farmers to set a better price and command a fair wage in the market.
Q: Can you describe the process that goes into making the fermented tea leaf? How long does the prepping and fermentation process take? What happens to the tea leaves as they ferment?
Farmers individually pick the tea leaves, sort the premium leaves out, wash and then roll the leaves to break the tea leaves a bit to start the oxidation process. Next, they steam the leaves, pack them tightly in burlap bags, and bury it underground 10 feet deep, where it sits for 2-4 months and up to 6 months. This naturally ferments the tea leaves and changes the flavor from sour and bitter to earthy and savory.
Q: Are there specific health benefits to your tea leaf salad?
Tea is known to contain flavonoids, so any benefits that you get from drinking tea, you will also get from eating tea leaves. Research has shown that flavonoids help reduce inflammation, which can aid in cardiovascular health.
Q: Why were you excited to collaborate with Thistle?
Thistle is a forward thinking company that makes eating healthy easier and accessible to people, and that’s definitely very in line with our ethos.
Q: Where can people buy your dressing in stores?
We just recently launched 6oz servings of our 3 flavors of Tea Leaf Dressing: Vegan, Traditional, and Spicy. Currently, you can buy it in our restaurants (Burma Superstar Oakland, Burma Superstar Alameda, Burma Love, Burma Club), Rainbow Grocery, Bi-Rite Market, Good Eggs, Berkeley Bowl, Alameda Marketplace and many other stores throughout the Bay Area.
Q: Any hints at the top secret special seasoning?
The seasonings are of course very important to the flavor and our seasonings are all sourced from some truly amazing companies but the depth and flavor that you taste in our product truly comes from the fermentation process and the high quality nature of the tea leaves themselves.
Q: What are some other ways that you like to use the tea leaf dressing?
I like to season my rice with it. Take a bowl of steamed jasmine or brown rice, add a tablespoon of tea leaf dressing, sprinkle our crunchies, and you have a quick snack. Another way a chef friend of mine uses it is as a marinade to roast veggies such as cauliflower, brussel sprouts, and squash.
Q: Do you have any exciting upcoming announcements regarding your restaurants/products that they want us to share in the blog?
Burma Club recently opened in downtown San Francisco inside the landmark building that housed San Francisco Fire Station No. 1. It’s also next to the historic Old Mint Building and the Westfield Mall, so we’re really able to introduce Burmese food to a broader audience, including international and domestic travelers both for business and pleasure.
Make sure to look out for the Thistle x Burma collaboration tea leaf salad on the menu next week! Place your orders by the end of day today. This salad will be added to our short list of rotating menu items and will be available once a month. We hope you enjoy!