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Taste of Burma: Make your own tea leaf salad

Step inside Riverside’s Lin Asian Market and restaurant at 927 Tonawanda St., and its sensory invitation starts french-fry fragrance of vegetable samosas.
The clean market with dry goods, spices and exotic produce is next door to its companion Burmese restaurant and across the street from the neighborhood’s waterfront Riverside Park. The options inside reveal something about one of the city's fastest growing immigrant groups. It’s a mix of the familiar, strange and irresistible food experiments.
You could eat at the restaurant next door [read the restaurant review of Lin]. But with a little shopping, you can also get a taste of Burma in Buffalo by making your own tea leaf salad.
Tea leaf salad constructed from Lin Asian Market ingredients. (Jenny Luk/Special to The News)

Tea leaf salad as sold by Lin Restaurant, a Burmese eatery in Riverside. (Jenny Luk/Special to The News)

Burlap bags of jasmine rice stacked on a loading crate by the door are a reminder that Burma is one of the top 10 rice producing countries in the world. Other gems line up neatly in boxes at the back of the store. Purple banana flowers, green mangoes, young papaya, lumpy and prickly bitter melons, aromatic Thai basil and small, and striped taro roots were all here during a recent visit.
Prickly bitter melons from Lin Asian Market. (Jenny Luk/Special to The News)

Prickly bitter melons from Lin Asian Market. (Jenny Luk/Special to The News)

Banana flowers from Lin Asian Market in Riverside. (Jenny Luk/Special to The News)

Banana flowers from Lin Asian Market in Riverside. (Jenny Luk/Special to The News)

Lots more left me completely puzzled. The friendly shopkeeper translated. The feathery green stalks were cha-cm, or “climbing wattle,” a key ingredient in a fluffy mild Burmese omelet. Round leaves on a skinny branch were pennywort, good pressed into a refreshing juice or a laced into a healthy salad.

Here you can find everything you need for a “Le Phet Thoat”, a Burmese tea leaf salad considered a national delicacy. It is a customer favorite at Burmese restaurants, like Lin or Sun on Niagara Street.

Step one, pick up a jar of pickled tea leaves.

Next, you need crunch. Chickpeas, fava beans, peanuts, sesame seeds and garlic come fried and mixed together in their own jar. At Lin’s these “Assorted Mixed Beans” sit conveniently next to the pickled tea leaves.

Pickled tea leaves from Lin Asian Market, perfect for creating your own tea leaf salad. (Jenny Luk/Special to The News)

Pickled tea leaves from Lin Asian Market, perfect for creating your own tea leaf salad. (Jenny Luk/Special to The News)

Don’t forget a bag of chewy and salty sun-dried shrimp.

Layer with ordinary farmers market fare like diced tomato, shredded cabbage and minced garlic.

Add a splash of fresh lime juice for tanginess. For a spicy kick, finish with a sprinkling of Thai pepper slivers.

Voila, a feast fit for a native. (For $7, make sure you like it, and sample the real thing in the restaurant next door.)

Burmese tea leaf salad that's homemade from Lin Asian Market ingredients. (Jenny Luk/Special to The News)

Burmese tea leaf salad that's homemade from Lin Asian Market ingredients. (Jenny Luk/Special to The News)

The refugee resettlement program that started a decade ago has turned the West Side into a “Little Burma.” Burmese are now about 4 percent of our population, according to study by the Partnership for the Public Good of Buffalo.

Head to the freezer section for frozen catfish or bone-in goat meat, crucial for a good Burmese curry sauce. Along the wall, there are the complements you need. Spices and sauces from fish to hot, and the piquant “balachaung” dried shrimp relish – the bacon bits of Southeast Asia.

Balachaung is a dried shrimp relish from Lin Asian Market. (Jenny Luk/Special to The News)

Balachaung is a dried shrimp relish from Lin Asian Market. (Jenny Luk/Special to The News)

Room for dessert? What about “cooked glutinous rice flour cake with durian mungbean filling”? It looks like a layer cake trapped in a jar. In the freezer section, I dared for the odd, yet safer sounding taste of microwaveable pumpkin custard.

Adventurous shoppers can also grab a house-made snack to go, like sweet sticky-rice cakes or “khit rose.” The latter are crispy fried honeycomb dough shaped like a blooming peony. It looks almost too pretty to eat, but destruction is worth it for the delicate, crunchy sweet sugar-cookie taste. Time your visit right and you can also walk out with steaming hot samosas filled with mashed yam, peas and onions for $1.

Some of the Burmese snacks you can find at Lin Asian Market in Riverside. (Jenny Luk/Special to The News)

Some of the Burmese snacks you can find at Lin Asian Market in Riverside. (Jenny Luk/Special to The News)

Soon I’m going back for at least one more thing. A frozen concoction from the vintage blue gizmo with the sign, “Refreshing Snow Cone.” The shopkeeper assured me it really works. For $2 you can get an icy dessert, Burmese style. I’m not sure what that is. Yet.

Luk expects to visit Lin Asian Market again to try the Burmese twist on the snow cone. (Jenny Luk/Special to The News)

Luk expects to visit Lin Asian Market again to try the Burmese twist on the snow cone. (Jenny Luk/Special to The News)

But with the first bite, I expect to imagine what the pleasures of childhood would be in the country known for its street food and colorful, spicy cuisine.

Info: Lin Asian Market, 927 Tonawanda St., 260-2625

Jenny Luk is a user experience designer, photographer, world traveler and epicure. Born and raised in Hong Kong, she is the granddaughter and daughter of restaurateurs. Her first home, famous for its multi-cultural cuisine, launched her passion for food. 

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