Garden-to-Stove: Lei Cha (擂茶)

In Singapore, Lei Cha is cooked by many members of community (allotment) gardens simply because it is the best representation of vegetables within the plots and it is extremely healthy. It was supposedly first created by a Chinese physician-farmer to feed troops during the warring Three Kingdoms period in China. And subsequently, Hakka farmers started drinking it both during and after work in the tobacco fields in order to fortify their bodies.

Today, lei cha can be found prepared by some restaurants and food courts in Singapore but overseas I find it being served most often in temples or tea houses.  Being a dish with a long history there are a few time-weathered methods (“principles”) of preparing lei cha that some people abide by. First, only fresh herbs and vegetables are used; Second, the lei cha paste must be pounded in an earthen vessel with a wooden pestle made from the trunk of a fruit tree (guava, jambu etc); Third, each component must be prepared separately (ie. the lei cha paste / tea, rice, accompanying vegetables) and at the end they must come together harmoniously as if they were made with each other in mind.

The most difficult part about lei cha, is the third principle, which is gaining a sense of how to prepare the component parts so that they compliment each other when mixed and eaten. If one understands the building blocks of taste and textures in lei cha, then you can easily switch out the ingredients depending on what you have available to you.

As for the second principle, the reason for using a fruit tree’s trunk as a pestle to grind the lei cha paste is supposedly to add a sweet woody aroma to it. Some Hakka families have pestles which have been passed down through many generations, the most common types of wood being guava. If you dont have such a pestle, then use a blender.

Going into the recipe proper.

Tea Paste

Ingredients: 2 cups thai basil, 1 cup mint, 3 coriander plants (incl tap roots), 2 sprouted spring onions, a few stalks ku li xin (Trifoliate Acanthopanax), 2 mugwort plants, 3 tbsp of black Chinese tea (eg oolong or pu er), 4 cloves garlic, 4 cloves shallots, 0.5 cup of peanuts, some sesame seeds.

Lei cha is a deeply personal dish, the proportion of the ingredients is largely up to you so long as the following elements are met: front forward nutty taste, followed by fresh herby flavour with bitterness and aroma of tea. Peanuts, basil, mint, mugwort, ku li xin and the chinese tea is what gives lei cha its distinctive taste. Essentially, you need to balance out the heaviness of the peanut with the lightness of the basil, mint and mugwort. The ku li xin and Chinese tea add the bitterness to the paste which I find is necessary for lei cha. If you do not have ku li xin (it is not sold in wet / super markets in Singapore), then simply replace with another type of bitter herb like King of Bitters which is a wild weed or add more Chinese tea into the paste mix.

Method: Fry the peanuts until light brown, set aside, use the same oil to fry the herbs and the Chinese tea leaves. Cool down both components, then blend (or use an earthen vessel with a fruit tree pestle to pound….). After a paste has formed, add 2.5 – 3 cups of cool water to the paste and keep grinding / pounding. Add salt and sugar to taste. Here, include slightly more salt than you would keeping in mind that the tea is going to be poured over rice and should flavour it.

Rice

Ingredients: 1.5 cups of rice (washed), 1.5 cups of water, 4 tbsp of cai po (fermented sweet radish), 4 cloves of garlic (chopped).

Method: Combine 1.5 cups of rice with the 1.5 cups of water to.. cook the rice in a rice cooker… After that, in a hot wok add 3 – 4 tbsp shallot oil and the chopped garlic, fry until almost brown, then add the cai po. Once the garlic lightly browns, add in the rice. The oil should coat the rice lightly to prevent it from lumping together (keeping it fluffy) but do not add too much or the oil will float up when you add the lei cha tea.

Vegetables

The first principle relates most to this component, so use the freshest vegetables that you can find. The “standard” lei cha vegetables are long bean, bok choy, four corner wing bean and fried / firm tofu. The shared characteristics of these vegetables are that they are crunchy and juicy without an overpowering flavour. Peanuts are also often added. The reason for this is that when you add the lei cha tea into the rice, you need the other ingredients with a firmer / crunchier texture to stand out. For example, if you only used soft vegetables in your lei cha like boiled down cabbage or mashed sweet potato it would disintegrate into the tea and would be rather bland to eat. In that connection, never overcook your vegetables. Anybody who has made lei cha will tell you that the cooking of the vegetables takes the shortest time out of the 3 components.

Long beans – 3 minutes in boiling water

Pumpkins cooked with oyster sauce and soy sauce and roasted peanuts – 5 minutes

Kang Kong with garlic and soy sauce – 4 minutes

Do not add too much seasoning (such as chilli etc) to your vegetables, as they’ll just melt away into your lei cha tea. All you want to do is cook the vegetable to an acceptable doneness (not raw) and add salt to push out some of the flavour notes.

After all this is done, plate up and enjoy!

I hope this post inspires you to try making lei cha at home.

It’s extremely rewarding because you get to adjust the recipe according to your preferences. For example, the lei cha paste I make for myself has added laksa leaves, ginger, dried ramie nettle and lemon basil. As you can guess, the lei cha tea is therefore more herby and strong flavoured with citrus notes. If I make lei cha for my mum, I would add more peanuts and sesame seeds with less herbs, she also prefers it more diluted so I add more water to the paste. To each his own.

Always,

J.

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