Origins of Burmese Tea

Origins of Burmese Tea

Tea production is thought to have originated on the Shan Plateau around the 14th Century in Tawnpeng state, parts of which are more than 6000 feet above sea-level. British reports from the late 19th century dismissively note that the Palaung and Shan planted their gardens randomly on hillsides. They also noted the superstitious Palaung reluctance to prune the tea trees as it was held that pruning them would cause them to die. In reality, the Burmese practiced rotational farming informed by the property laws associated with village communalism. Leaves were picked from trees four years after planting. They would continue to be harvested for a period of ten to twelve years after which the trees were cut down and the gardens burnt to lie fallow. The village elders would rule on any outsider's claim to develop village land.

In the 1930's an estimated 138 square miles of Tawnpeng state in the Shan region were observed to be under tea production. The tea from this region is described as being of the Manipur jat, a variety the same as that found in Assam.

The Burmese tea industry has languished somewhat since its inception. Burma's prior status as a dominion within British Imperial India saw its efforts at export stymied as Indian tea was always given preference. Although Burma received permission to export its native tea in the 1930's, the outbreak of World War Two put a hold on these efforts. Since then, although Burma is one of the cradles of Camelia sinensis, its tea crop has been primarily for domestic consumption with a small quantity of semi-processed leaf being exported to Yunnan province in China.

This lack of export success is not reflected in the richness of Burma's tea culture however. The Burmese have a unique tradition of pickling tea to produce a dish served with sesame seeds, peanuts, beans, fried garlic and dried shrimp called "Lahpet". A popular Burmese expression still has it that, "Of all fruit, mango is the best, of all meat it's pork, and of all leaves it's lahpet".