What Is Lei Cha?

Lakshmi Sandhana

Lei cha is a special tea created by pounding tea leaves with other seeds and grains like rice. Believed to have its origins with the Song dynasty in China, this tea is an integral part of the Hakka culture, who belong to a subethnic branch of the Han Chinese. Cha stands for tea and lei stands for grinding with a mortar and pestle. While the term literally translates as ground tea, it is popularly known as thunder tea or thunder rice tea. The name is thought to have stuck because of the amount of noise made when pounding all the ingredients.

Fresh basil leaves can be ground up and used in lei cha.
Fresh basil leaves can be ground up and used in lei cha.

The legend around lei cha details how Zhang Fei, a military general from Shu Han, and his troops began to fall victim to a plague during an invasion in the Three Kingdoms period in Chinese history. An herbalist offered a family recipe made by grinding rice with ginger and green tea as a cure. The troops were cured by consuming the mixture, and lei cha gained widespread popularity as a result.

The original lei cha combined ginger and green tea.
The original lei cha combined ginger and green tea.

The ground tea is credited with having medicinal properties while being a great one-pot detox meal. Various herbs pounded into the tea are thought to enhance slimming, promote vitality, and improve vision. Proponents say regular consumption detoxifies the liver, improves body functions, and helps with rheumatism and arthritis. It also helps ease bronchitis, treats diabetes, and prevents the hardening of arteries. Believed to be a good tonic for both lungs and stomach, it helps a person to relax and sleep better.

Preparing lei cha can be quite tedious because of the huge number of ingredients involved. Cooks pound green or oolong tea leaves along with grains and seeds. Sunflower, lotus, and pumpkin are just a few of the seeds used. Lentils, roasted pine nuts, and roasted soybeans may also be ground up. Herbs like mint, parsley, basil, and coriander are also part of lei cha. Cooks grind all the ingredients by hand with a mortar or use a food processor to blend the ingredients to a sticky paste.

Adding hot water makes the paste into a soup-like, thin tea. Typically, people serve the tea with a bowl of rice and a variety of vegetables like celery, long beans, carrots, and cabbage. Preserved radish, tofu, shrimp, and anchovies are other possible accompaniments. Servers pour the soupy tea over the mixed dry ingredients and rice, and diners consume it hot. The trick to making this dish at home is to grind everything until it becomes a very smooth paste.

Extremely popular in Malaysia, Southern China, and Taiwan, thunder rice tea is popular at breakfast and during cold winters. Served at traditional Hakka weddings and feasts, the tea is a delicious way to consume cereals and tea simultaneously. It is a fiber-rich meal that has a very strong taste of herbs and a colorful, greenish appearance. People have very strong reactions to lei cha and either find it to be too bitter with its herbal overtones or love its distinctive, unusual taste.

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