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Fortunately—or maybe not, as you'll see—Golden Pacific Market has begun stocking individual packages of "Yuzana lephet."
I had no idea what it was when I grabbed a small package from the bin near the front door a few weeks ago. Had I realized it was the Maruchan instant ramen of Burmese tea salad I would have grabbed all of the varieties on offer. As it happened I took only the "red bag," which contained double-sealed portions of (a) toasty, crunchy fried legumes and (b) a wet wad of what looks like expectorated chewing tobacco. That's the laphet, young chile-seasoned tea leaves that have been pickled and buried underground until of a properly fermented age. They're sour and pungent like kimchi, and slightly bitter, but when they come together with the crunchy bits it's a synergy of texture and flavor unlike any other. Why isn't this available in vending machines everywhere? you'll wonder.
But though this irresistible snack is priced at an attractive $1.29 per bag, it comes with a moral price. The English label slapped on by local importer Lien Hoa Food Corp. says it's a product of Thailand, but in fact the manufacturer is Yuzana, a junta-connected Burmese company with a lengthy rap sheet of unsavory business practices.
Additionally, in 2009 Singapore and Malaysia banned pickled tea leaves from a number of Burmese producers—including Yuzana—for using an inedible synthetic dye linked to cancer and liver and kidney damage. The FDA didn't ban the stuff, though, and Lien Hoa lists nothing more than peanuts, broad beans, soybeans, palm oil, white sesame, chile, and tea.
So can you enjoy this tasty snack free of guilt? I guess that's between you and your god. Life's full of temptation.