If you were on the run and had no access to electricity, what food would you pack? Field rations, space food, and/or squeeze packs of Nutella? (This last option gets my housemates’ unanimous vote.)
400 years ago, the Hakkas—an ethnic Chinese group fleeing South from the constant warfare in North China—invented "lei cha" or thunder tea rice to sustain them over the long, hazardous journey. With no means of heating water and limited resources, the original dish consisted of a handful of grains and beans ground to a fine powder and mixed with cold water. The “thunder” in the dish refers to the racket made as the ingredients were crushed with a traditional wood pestle in a coarse-surfaced clay bowl.
While the dish staved off hunger, munching on it must have been as appetizing as munching on raw, sodden grits. Fortunately, once the refugees made it South, they settled in the hills and were able to cultivate rice paddies, tea plantations, and other vegetable crops. The original “hard times” dish of lei cha evolved to a far more palatable—but no less modest—offering that remains popular today.
Modern lei cha is a two-part meal consisting of a soupy, Asian pesto spooned over a medley of rice and cooked vegetables. First, fresh basil, mint, green tea leaves, Chinese parsley, mugwort (or common wormwood), and black and white sesame seeds are pounded to a fragrant paste. Hot water is then added to create a bright green, potently herbal, and slightly medicinal tasting broth. Meanwhile, veggies like okra, snake beans, cabbage, spinach, and mustard greens are chopped up and individually sautéed. Salty-sweet, preserved radish is minced and fried with garlic, while dried shrimp, baby anchovies, and minced shallots are browned to a crisp. Firm, seasoned tofu is cubed and pan-fried, while peanuts, pine nuts, sesame seeds, and sunflower seeds are freshly roasted. Finally, these ingredients are laid over a bed of brown, white, or red cargo rice.
Diners can choose to toss the ingredients together and douse the entire dish with green tea broth (creating a Chinese version of ochazuke); eat the individual elements separately, saving the soup for last; or (like my friends and I, who find the broth a tad too “green” tasting on its own) spoon some broth atop the rice and eat the wet areas. Repeat until the bowl is empty and you’re likely to feel like you’re about to burst from the overwhelming sense of virtuousness and well-being that lei cha tends to inspire.
I’ve never made lei cha from scratch. It’s a tedious endeavor that requires the separate prepping of ingredients so as to maintain each veggie’s crunch and to ensure flavors are clean and un-muddied—kind of like regular Chinese fried rice, but healthy and spam-free. In Asia, it also makes little sense to take on the grunt work when generous serves of organic goodness like this are readily available for less than $3.
I’ve not been lucky enough to stumble across this dish in the States though, so the next time I get a craving, I may have to consult recipes like this or this. Having said that, Taiwanese brand Greenmax (available at 99 Ranch Markets) has a powdered, instant version you add hot water to that’s not half bad (and can actually boast of historical fidelity).
About the author: Wan Yan Ling is a sourdough finger-crosser living in Rhode Island. She can usually be found in the kitchen procrastinating on "real work" or online tracking down obscure recipes. Ling thinks eating alone is no fun, and she still believes in hand-mixing.