Lei cha, or thunder tea rice, is a traditional dish among the Hor Poh (河婆) clan of the Hakka people, an ethnic sub-group of the Han Chinese known for their nomadic existence. Despite its striking name, the dish is essentially a bowl of rice filled with a medley of chopped greens and served with a fragrant side of soup made from ground tea leaves and fresh herbs. To enjoy it most, you douse the rice with the soup, making sure every spoonful is generously covered.
Some suggest thunder tea rice dates back to the Qin Dynasty; others to the Three Kingdoms period when a general miraculously helped his troops recover from a plague by making them drink the herbal concoction prescribed by an old doctor.
Though the dish declined in popularity for a long period – many are put off by its labour-intensive preparation process, its lack of meat and its slightly bitter taste – thunder tea rice has made a comeback in recent years as modern trends veer towards fresh, vegetable-focused dining and a renewed interest in heritage dishes. Thunder tea rice is said to offer health benefits such as lowering cholesterol, detoxifying the body, improving digestion and helping weight loss.
How is it prepared?
Tea leaves are first hand-pounded in a ceramic bowl with a pestle fashioned from a guava tree, which is said to add a special aroma to the dish. Roast peanuts, sesame seeds, water and up to 25 herbs are then added. The mixture is then ground for a further 15 minutes.
Some say the dish’s English name is a misnomer as its Chinese character (擂) actually refers to the act of pounding the tea leaves rather than thunder (雷). Others claim the dish was christened for the thunderous racket when the ingredients are being ground.
The herbs are typically Thai basil, mugwort, mint and coriander, although different chefs have various combinations based on family recipes.
Inexpensive luk bou tea leaves (六宝茶) are usually preferred over more expensive teas such as pu’er or tieguanyin as the former has a milder taste that will not make the dish too bitter when ground.
Where can you try it?
More often eaten at home than in restaurants, only a handful of restaurants specialise in the dish, mostly in southern Guangdong province, or among Hakka communities in Taiwan, Malaysia and Singapore.
If you can’t make the trek to Jiexi in Guangdong, where the dish originated, Lei Cha Yang Sheng Zhu Shi restaurant 擂茶養生主食館 in Guangzhou (Shop 3032, Wanda Plaza, 368 Xingnan Avenue, Panyu District, Guangzhou, China. Tel: +86 20-34753877) serves it in a modern setting, along with a wide choice of other tea-based drinks, snacks and desserts.
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