A bowl of lei cha or “thunder tea rice” is the culmination of a long and rich Hakka tradition as well as hours spent slogging in the kitchen.
Eighty-year-old Yong Mow has had a love affair with lei cha long before it was embraced by mainstream diners.
As an illiterate girl growing up in a Hakka village in Jasin, Malacca, Yong observed how the women in her commune would convene to make this vegetable-heavy, health-friendly dish of their ancestors. Little did she realise that the dish would be a regular feature in her own household.
After she got married, she found herself spending at least an hour almost every day preparing lei cha for her in-laws and husband, who would eat it for lunch, dinner and even on special occasions.
Lei cha literally translates into “thunder tea rice” in English, a reference to the loud noise made when pounding the ingredients.
The traditional rice dish – which is customarily eaten by Hakkas on the seventh day of the Lunar New Year to celebrate the birth of mankind – brims with tofu, nuts and vegetables both fresh and preserved. However, any lei cha enthusiast will be able to tell you that the key to a gratifying bowl of lei cha lies not in the rice or condiments, but the bowl of accompanying broth that mesmerises with its unusual green colour and taste.
Originally a poor man’s food, the dish is evolved from generations of itinerant Hakkas who practised a “waste not, want not” philosophy. During the Qin dynasty (221-207 AD), the Hakkas were driven from their homes in Northern China by a succession of wars, plague, droughts and famine.
As a result, these “guest families” – as they were known to the Southern Chinese (the term “Hakka” literally means “guest family”) – are nomadic. Since food was scarce on the road, lei cha allowed them to survive on a few grains and some easily available herbs whilst maintaining robust health and energy.
Interestingly enough, lei cha’s healthy reputation extends back to the era of the Three Kingdoms. Legend has it that General Zhang Fei was about to capture Chengdu when his troops fell ill from the plague. An old doctor prescribed this herbal concoction, which miraculously cured the men and helped them win the battle!
Today, lei cha is experiencing a revival of sorts among the younger generation, thanks in part to our enlightened approach to food that favours the fresh, the local, and the seasonal, as well as renewed interest in ethnic dining – incidentally, the Sarawak Hopo Association (SHA), in 2012, declared every May 1 as Lui Cha Festival Day!
While there is a standard method of cooking lei cha, different Hakka families may use different ingredients based on availability and the seasons. Subgroups like the Ho Po and Hoi Luk Fung are especially well-known for their recipes.
Yong, whose husband is a Hoi Luk Fung Hakka, begins by slicing and sautéing different varieties of fresh and preserved vegetables. However, she warns that not all ingredients can work together.
“Vegetables like kailan, for instance, are a big no-no because the flavour does not jive well with the others,” she cautions. Whether it is French beans, leek, Chinese mustard greens or – if she is feeling particularly nostalgic – a sprinkle of lotus seed hearts well-known for their bitterness, the ingredients of her lei cha would vary from season to season.
Like many Hakkas, Yong considers nine to be an auspicious symbol, so her ingredients – seven vegetables, one rice and one soup – would always add up to that number. Occasionally, she also adds dried shrimps for a jolt of saltiness.
Next – and this is where it gets interesting – she makes crispy rice by throwing unmilled grains into a cooking pot filled with hot sand collected from a nearby river, stirring until they puff up from the heat.
Then, armed with a rough ceramic bowl that’s almost as old as she is and a pestle fashioned from a guava tree – which is supposed to lend its special aroma to the dish – she grinds a handful of green tea into a thick paste, before adding roasted peanuts, sesame seeds and Thai basil leaves. Gripping the long, sturdy stick with both hands, she continues for another 15 minutes or so, only stopping occasionally to add water.
“The more tea leaves and sesame seeds you use, the better,” she says, adding that the end result, if done right, is supposed to be thick and creamy, and smell absolutely delicious.
While this humble – but labour intensive – dish has found its way from household kitchens to restaurants in Malaysia, old-fashioned lei cha like Yong’s has begun its march towards extinction. Few people bother with it due to the difficulty of obtaining certain items like the sand (you’ve got to be quite a lei cha enthusiast to trek to a river), or the bowl (Yong bought hers from a small village sundry shop yonks ago).
And according to Ng Sook Fun, a distant relative of Yong’s and also the co-founder of Hakka restaurant Ying Ker Lou, a handful of individuals are still put off by the absence of meat and the bitterness of the dish.
Keen on promoting the dish of their forefathers, Ng and her husband Albert Wee have resuscitated the dish with an infusion of modern culinary ideas. Apart from serving the original lei cha inspired by Yong’s recipe, Ying Ker Lou has invented its own trippy adaptations of lei cha, including one that substitutes the rice with handmade Hakka noodles and another that’s chilled just like Japanese soba. But it’s the restau- rant’s fried lei cha that’s won the approval of newbies both young and old.
And then there’s the little-known syrupy version. A recent invention, the dessert lei cha contains a variety of sweet and sweetened ingredients, such as red dates, tapioca pearls and red beans.
In The Hakka Cookbook: Chinese Soul Food From Around The World, author Linda Lau Anusasananan describes how it was invented in Taiwan in 1998.
“The Beipu Agricultural Department searched for a local specialty to generate tourism and keep their Hakka village alive. They interviewed Yei Pong Shell, a grandmother who came from China’s Guangdong Province to Taiwan when she was 28. When she went to Beipu to demonstrate how to make the tea, she was asked if it could be sweetened. She said that adding sweets would not hurt. Since then, this savoury tea from mainland China has developed into a distinctive tea ceremony dish with sweet condiments served in Taiwan’s Hakka villages.”
Love it or hate it, there’s no denying that lei cha has made quite an impression on many of us. Those who dare take a bite however, are immensely rewarded, beginning with the lowering of cholesterol levels. For people like Yong however, lei cha isn’t just about healthy eating. It represents a vanished era when life was much more pleasant.