Lethoke refers to a type of Burmese salad — thoke — whose essential element is that it’s mixed by hand — let. Despite being an old term, vendors and cooks at the street stalls and restaurants of Myanmar continue to use their hands — not a spoon — to make this type of dish.
I first became aware of this style of cooking when, on my first trip to Myanmar, I stopped at a streetside stall in central Yangon to eat a salad. I was a little shocked when the vendor began mixing the salad by hand — gripping, squeezing and pinching the ingredients with her bare fingers — but the real surprise came when, as I began eating it, she proceeded to slowly and deliberately lick her fingers clean while watching me eat…
Despite this introduction, I wasn’t dissuaded, and since then have eaten many, many types of lethoke (nowadays, many vendors wear disposable plastic gloves). Perhaps the most famous version of the dish, and among my favourites, is lephet thoke, a salad of pickled tea leaves, fried nuts, and thin slices of cabbage, garlic, tomato and fresh chili:
But in Myanmar one can make a lethoke out of just about anything, including rice, noodles or even sliced samosas:
the latter served on the streets of Yangon with a thin lentil dressing.
The most common type of lethoke revolves around vegetables or fruit, which can range from meaty tomatoes to the tart flesh of shauk thi, a large citrus fruit that I’ve only ever encountered in Myanmar. One of the more unusual and delicious versions of the dish I’ve tasted was a lethoke made from a bitter, indigenous vegetable known as kyaung sha thi, which translates as ‘cat tongue’ (in northern Thailand, it’s known as lin fah — ลิ้นฟ้า — ‘sky tongue’, and in science as Oroxylum indicum). Mi-Mi Htun, proprietor of the family-run Moon-Light Rest House, in Thazi, Shan State, was kind enough to show me how she makes this dish (shown at the top of this post). Not many of you will be able to recreate it at home, but I think it’s worth sharing as an illustration of a typical Burmese-style lethoke, in particular one that emphasises the overwhelmingly savoury ingredients and flavours — fried shallots, toasted chickpea flour, dried shrimp, turmeric oil — that Burmese people love.
‘Cat Tongue’ Salad (Kyaung Sha Thi Thoke)
‘Cat tongue’, a bitter vegetable
Shallots, sliced thinly
Garlic, sliced thinly
Oil for frying
Roasted peanuts, ground
Dried shrimp, ground to a near powder
Lime, to taste
Roasted chickpea flour (also known as gram flour or besan)
Oil steeped with turmeric, to taste
Slice the ‘cat tongue’ thinly, mix with salt and set aside.
Slice shallots and garlic thinly and fry in oil until brown and crispy. Allow to drain on paper towels.
Squeeze and rinse the cat tongue two or three times until the bitter juices are mostly extracted and the cat tongue is soft.
Using your hand, combine cat tongue with peanuts and shrimp. Squeeze, but don’t mush or use too much force. Season to taste with lime, bean powder, oil and more salt, if necessary.