Lahpet, a salad anchored by the intense sour savor of fermented tea leaves, is a signature dish of its native Burma. It’s also the namesake of Lahpet: A Taste of Burma, a New Orleans pop-up eatery introducing these flavors locally.
But while this distinctive dish may speak of a culture far across the globe, lately it has also helped build a bridge to a tiny, almost invisible Burmese refugee community here in southeast Louisiana.
“We’ve been hoping to do this for years now, and once we started the response has been amazing,” said Mark LaMaire, who started Lahpet in 2014. “We’ve been able to connect with the local Burmese community in ways we didn’t know would be possible.”
So far, those connections have helped Burmese refugees find translators, get a taste of home in an unfamiliar land and open doors to others who share their heritage in the area. There are bigger plans on the horizon. LaMaire hopes to start a brick-and-mortar version of Lahpet in New Orleans, a Burmese restaurant that could create jobs for refugees living here.
Like similar events held earlier, this upcoming dinner is a fundraiser for One World Family International, the nonprofit LaMaire formed to help Burmese refugees overseas and which led to his Burmese culinary undertaking in New Orleans in the first place.
A musician gets cooking
It started with a vacation in 2009 and a trekking expedition through rural areas in northern Thailand. Here, LaMaire saw firsthand the Burmese refugee crisis in villages near the border Thailand shares with Myanmar, the official name of Burma since 1989 and a country wracked by decades of strife and civil war. The tenor of the trip changed for him, and he began looking for ways to help.
“Teaching English was a possibility, but we learned that what people really wanted was for their kids to be able to get to school,” LaMaire said.
In 2010 he started One World Family, which he and his girlfriend Eva Sohl run today. It raises money to pay for drivers to shuttle children between remote refugee villages and schools and provide uniforms, school supplies and similar assistance back in Thailand.
LaMaire is a musician who plays bass in a number of New Orleans bands (he’s also a Tuesday morning DJ on WWOZ 90.7 FM). He initially held benefit concerts back home as One World Family fundraisers. But then he started thinking about how to convey the actual culture of the people his group supports, and he fixed on food.
“When you travel, you want to engage all of your senses and the food of the area you’re visiting is such a big part of that,” he said.
If the could bring back the flavors that so enthralled him overseas, he reasoned, that might resonate with supporters here at home. Though he had little restaurant experience, he soon recruited Blake Smithson, a fellow musician and a catering chef. Together, they’ve been applying recipes LaMaire learned directly from Burmese people he met overseas and through ongoing tutorials with Burmese immigrants back in the U.S.
Burmese cooking reflects some influences of other regional cuisines – especially Thai, Chinese and Indian -- but has its own distinctive niche, marked by an abundant use of nuts, fish sauces, fresh herbs and rice noodles.
Recent renditions of the Lahpet pop up have brought grilled chicken singing with ginger and citrus, salads of seared catfish strung with mint and carrot, a yellow curry bobbing with hard boiled eggs fried with turmeric and fresh young coconuts cleaved open to order. Their lahpet salad itself is the tour de force, with oily bits of soft, strongly-flavored fermented tea leaf ricocheting across the palate between fried peanuts, spicy ginger, the tart pop of tomatoes, the aromatic warmth of fried garlic and the cool relief of cilantro and cabbage.
“It takes discipline, practice and good teachers,” LaMaire said of learning this cuisine. “But it’s been a real pleasure to see people respond to it the way they have.”
Building bridges over dishes
Some of those responses have come from unexpected quarters. Catholic Charities, the local agency of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, works with a small community of Burmese people living in the area as part of its refugee resettlement program. Case manager Lilian Alvarez said the group tries to connect its clients with their home cultures wherever possible, though there are few obvious avenues for their Burmese clients here. When she heard about Lahpet from an earlier fundraiser this spring, it immediately struck a chord.
“I thought if they were doing Burmese food that was interesting, so let’s reach out and see what’s possible,” Alvarez said.
Through that connection, Lahpet participated in the agency’s World Refugee Day in June, providing food for the event, and it has been working with a small Burmese-American community around the metro area to line up translator services and help the new arrivals get settled.
Lahpet sets up inside the Rook Cafe, a Freret Street coffee shop, on the first Saturday of the month (the next edition is Aug. 1). In June, Lahpet had a weekly-gig as guest vendor at the Crescent City Farmers Market, part of its Green Plate Special program.
At any of these outings, LaMaire and his crew field a lot of questions about the unfamiliar cuisine, and sometimes about its country of origin too – like why, if the nation is called Myanmar, the cooking is still Burmese.
“Myanmar is a political term, while the cultural identity is still Burmese,” LaMaire explains. “The people, and in our case the cooking, that’s still Burmese.”
LaMaire acknowledges that’s a culture about which he still has much to learn. Trips back to Thailand are working visits, as he oversees One World Family’s programs there. But they have also grown into culinary research expeditions too.
“Now that we have the pop up, it’s become a serious mission to pick people’s brains, learn their techniques, see how they really make this or do that,” he said. “It’s exciting to be able to bring it back here.”
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.