Lei Cha, My Recipe For A Centuries Old Chinese Dish

Thunder rice tea (Lei Cha) is a centuries old Chinese Hakka dish that was invented as a meal of survival and sustenance during time of war during the Qin Dynasty in (221 – 207AD).  The Hakka are Han Chinese and one of the original settlers of the plains of central China that migrated to the southern provinces due to social unrest and invasions. Throughout history, the Hakka as a people have been known for their perseverance and adaptability due to their migratory agrarian lifestyle; which is evident even with the preservation of the centuries old recipes, such as thunder tea rice.

Thunder Tea Rice Stall in Singapore

Although created to feed weak hungry soldiers and fend off disease; thunder tea rice, even to this day, is still a popular dish prepared in Hakka communities throughout Asia. It’s considered a highly nutritional dish with many health benefits and even believed to help with detoxification and weight management.

Lei Cha is a signature Hakka meal made up of two separate dishes:

  1. A rice dish filled with diced tofu, green beans, ground nuts, pickled radish, dried anchovies and other vegetables mixed with cooked brown rice or white rice; and
  2. An accompanying dish which is a slightly astringent hot tea made from green tea leaves, basil, mint and sesame seeds. The traditional way to eat the dish is to pour the hot “tea” over the rice and mix well. The name “thunder tea” is actually a misnomer since the meaning of “lei” in Hakka translates to “pounded” which describes the traditional method of how the tea and herbs were grounded together to make the soup.

Bushels of Thai Basil

An acquired taste, some may find this dish a bit too herbaceous and “green” for them, while the more health-conscious may yearn for the crunchy bits and medicinal qualities of this fiber-rich dish. I discovered that preparing thunder rice tea at home can require a bit of preparation, but the results are rewarding and extremely satisfying.

Thunder Tea Rice

Thunder Tea Rice/ Lei Cha (Makes 4 Servings)

6 cups steamed brown or white rice
3 tablespoons canola oil
1/2 cup preserved chopped salted radish (choy poh), soaked in water for 30 minutes, squeeze dry
3 tablespoons dried shrimp, soaked in water for 30 minutes and squeezed dry and minced
2 cups bok choy, finely chopped
2 cups napa cabbage, finely chopped
10 strands long beans, cut into 1/2 inch rounds
2 pieces (3 inch square) pressed tofu, cut into 1/2 inch dice
3 green onions, minced
1/2 cup toasted dried anchovies
1/2 cup toasted peanuts, minced

Tea Soup
5 cups vegetable broth
1 cup water
1 tsp. salt
1/2 cup green tea leaves, wrapped in cheese cloth
2 cups Thai basil, leaves only
1/2 cup cilantro, leaves only
1/2 cup mint, leaves only
1 Tbsp. toasted sesame seeds

To prep the vegetables, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Blanch separately the bok choy, napa cabbage and diced long beans for 2 minutes, making sure to squeeze excess water from each of the 3 ingredients. Place into separate mounds on a platter and set aside.

In a saute pan over medium heat, add 1 tablespoon of oil to the pan and stir-fry the salted radish until just crisp, 5 minutes. Mound the blanched vegetables into separate piles on the platter. Repeat with the minced dried shrimp and place next to the radish, toasted dried anchovies and chopped peanuts. In the same pan, heat 1 more tablespoon of oil and saute the tofu until slightly crisp and stir in the green onions and mix until well combined. Transfer to the plate of condiments and set aside until ready to serve.

For the tea: In a large sauce pan, heat the vegetable broth over low heat. Place the tea leaves wrapped in cheese cloth into the broth and let steep for 15 minutes and then discard the tea leaves. While the tea steeps, place 1 cup of water, salt and all the herbs and sesame seeds into a food processor or blender, blend until well pureed. Stir the herb mixture into the soup and season to taste with salt. Turn the heat off until ready to serve.

To assemble, place 1 cup of rice into 4 large serving bowls and divide all the condiments into 4 portions – arrange in separate mounds on top of the rice. Reheat the tea soup and divide into 4 small soup bowls. To eat, mix the condiments with the rice and pour as much soup as you want into the rice. Enjoy!