The summer before last, my mother and I made plans for her to come for lunch one day. I was searching through the cupboards for inspiration when I spied a bag of green tea. A dear family friend had brought it back from China the winter before, not long before she was diagnosed with lung cancer. She had died earlier that spring, and as I looked at the bag in my hand, I felt my eyes grow misty. I had a napa cabbage from our CSA share in the fridge, and remembered a recipe for Burmese Green Tea Salad from the excellent Hot & Spicy & Meatless 2, and I knew I wanted to make it in memory of Ann.
Ann was a lifelong family friend who I thought of like an aunt. She was there through my childhood, and then visited us in Vermont when we moved here. She and Mark would come and we would go for Sunday brunches and birding walks. They were the first to show me the snow geese who visit near here on their way to and from breeding grounds each year. They themselves were migratory friends, stopping here to listen and laugh about whatever was happening in our lives, greeting my children when they were born, bringing gifts and showing pictures of their own grandchildren. She was a mom of two sons who I admired and looked to for advice as I began to raise my own.
I reflected on all this as I began gathering ingredients for the salad. The preparation became a tribute, noble and important. I pressed, marinated and baked tofu to give us some protein. My mom came over, and we ate, talking about Ann, and trying to decide whether we liked the salad. It was a little weird eating all that tannic tea, but we ate until it was gone.
Later that afternoon, the boys and I were invited to a playground for a birthday party. It was around then that I realized I was feeling quite strange. The kids noisily descending and climbing the slide seemed especially funny, and I couldn’t seem to stop talking to the other moms. Not that I was inclined to try. I thought, “Gosh, I seem kind of wired!”
I stopped and thought about what I had eaten and drank that day, I remembered the salad, and did some quick math. I had doubled the recipe, since we were having it for lunch instead of an appetizer, so that we had each eaten about 1/3 of a cup of green tea, which was about, oh, 18 cups of caffeinated tea. My mom and I both ended up awake until one that morning; I used the time to reflect on how none of us really gets to choose the legacy we leave behind, or how we’ll be remembered. It may have been surreal, but I like to think Ann would have approved.
La Phet (Green Tea Salad)
Hot & Spicy & Meatless 2, as collected by Richard Sterling from Renatto Buhlman, executive chef of the Strand Hotel.
4 servings (but better make it more like 6 or 8, just in case)
- 6 cloves garlic, sliced
- 1/4 c. peanut oil
- 1/3 c. loose green tea leaves
- 2 T. coarsely chopped peanuts
- 1 T. toasted sesame seeds
- 1/4 t. sugar
- 3/4 c. finely shredded napa cabbage or bok choy
- juice of 1/2 lime
- 1/4 t. cayenne powder
- Lime wedges
- Whole dried red chiles
Fry the garlic in 2 teaspoons of the oil until it starts to brown.
Combine the tea leaves and the remainder of the oil, and, using your fingers, knead the oil into the leaves until the oil is well distributed. Let the mixture sit at least one hour or until the leaves soften. If your tea is extremely dy, you may want to add a few drops of water. Add the garlic, peanuts, sesame seeds, sugar, cabbage, lime juice, and cayenne and mix well. Garnish with lime and chiles and serve.