Lei cha and Romance of the Three Kingdoms(三国演义）
Legend has it that during the period full of tribulations of the Three Kingdoms, General Zhang Fei, a great warrior of Zhu Ge Gong Ming’s troop, together with his few hundreds men, fell sick due to an outbreak of plague in the hilly area of Hunan province. Worried and feeling weak, he decided to camp at the foothill of a mountain. An old and white bearded man then came down from the mountain and taught him to grind roasted rice, ginger and tea leaves in a pot, poured boiling water in and that was it, the remedy for the army sickness.
True enough, his army recovered from the plague and until now, people in the Hunan area still drink this rice tea. Hakka people, being the immigrants from the Northern parts of China, also brought with them this traditional dish to Southern China and over the ages had developed into two types of Lei Cha – the sweet and the savory versions. The sweet version is more popular in Northern China and Taiwan. Most oversea Hakka cook the authentic lei cha of the Hopoh clan which is a savory dish full of herbal flavor.
At present, there are quite a number of stalls selling lei cha in Kuching, almost all are run by Hakka ladies. There is one stall having a few branches in the city. Some sell vegetarian and non-vegetarian lei cha at the same stall. Most of them use blenders to grind their lei cha paste.
Traditionally, Hakka people believe that they must eat seven types of vegetables on the seventh day of the Chinese New Year and that is why lei cha are served on that day. Since it is quite a hassle to prepare lei cha, most families would prefer to eat outside. It is a common sight to see eateries swarming with city folks during the seventh day of Chinese New Year which is also known as ‘Ren Ri’ or the ‘Mankind’s day’ in Chinese. Very often they have to get numbers and wait in the long queue on that day, just to have a bowl of lei cha !
The picture below shows a nicely arranged lei cha dish sold at one of cafes in Kuching. Notice how the rice is topped with vegetables? Some vegetarian stalls have garlic, leeks and chives in their side dishes. Look at the colors displayed, an excellent presentation indeed.
Look at their jade-green soup, isn’t it awesome? The secret for a jade-green soup lies in the preparation. Check it out in my next post on lei cha recipe, Lei cha(part 2). Olden way of preparing lei cha results in dark and brownish green soup which does not look very appealing even to the most adventurous eaters.
Traditional way of preparing authentic lei cha of Hopoh Clan requires a lot of hard work which involves grinding lei cha herbs, nuts and dry toasted tea leaves together in a big lei cha grinding earthen pot.
The picture below shows a lei cha grinding pot passed down to me by my late mom. Remembering Mom by remembering the food she used to cook for us and also by inheriting her antique lei cha pot. Nowadays, the art of making lei cha pots still remains in our city but the materials they use is very different. Most of the time we use blender to cook lei cha. I avoid using my lei cha pot because it is an antique full of sentimental values.
In the picture below, a guava(jumbu batu) stick or pestle is used to grind the boiled herbs, dry roasted groundnuts and roasted tea leaves. Notice the lines or rails of grooves in the lei cha pot. These grooves or ‘teeth’ of the pot help to crush the nuts and herbs. A pot of boiling water or hot tea is then poured into the pot. Add salt or light soya to taste.
The tea is then served with side dishes as described in details in my next post , Lei Cha(part 2).
A saucer of dry toasted groundnuts is a must together with stir-fried chai poh(preserved reddish) and a generous serving of stir-fried tofu as well. For the other part of the side dishes, different vegetables can be used. The most important vegetables used are changkok manis(sauropus androgynus), long beans or winged beans, kai lan or baby kai lan.
For some, the slightly bitter vegetables like the Indian lettuce(kumak) and local mustard are included. Their bitter and yet pleasant taste do bring lei cha to a different level.
In additional to the usual side dishes, we used to cook long bean and winged bean shoots to add more flavors to the lei cha dish. Cooking lei cha is always a family event with every female member getting involved. It is a tedious and laborious task to complete. With electric blenders and food processors around in this modern age, cooking time for lei cha can be cut short. It is good to see that Hakka ladies are quick to grab the chance for venturing into business. In the past, lei cha cooking was only restricted to family activities.
The picture shown below is the lei cha cooked in our kitchen using an ordinary blender. The vegetables were cut and chopped one day beforehand and the roasted groundnuts were prepared one day earlier. On the actual day of cooking lei cha, the rice was cooked first and then the jade green paste and the bitter paste were prepared separately. This was followed by stir-frying the chai poh and vegetables. Check for the recipe in my next post- click Lei Cha(part 2).
Yes, it does look very alien to people outside Malaysia, parts of China and Taiwan but once you get used to it, you might get addicted and even request for more bitter paste for the soup.
Authentic Hakka Lei Cha of the Hopoh clan,
is forever green and delicious!
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