by Joyce Maio- June 2016
In the early 1980s, Taiwan invented Bubble Tea and created a fad. This cool, refreshing fruit- flavored drink infused with tea and tapioca pearls can be found almost everywhere today.
However, for more than two centuries, Taiwan has been renowned for its exquisite high-quality mountain oolongs and takes pride in its traditional craft, using methods passed down from generation to generation.
Yet, little is known in the United States about their Lei Cha Tea (擂茶).
Last week I attended the annual Taiwan Festival that took place in Union Square, hoping to find a booth offering various tastings of oolongs, but instead, I discovered Lei Cha.
Lei Cha literally is translated as “pounded” or “ground” tea.
It is believed that Lei Cha was consumed by Hakka soldiers for rejuvenation and restorative purpose. The Hakka people are part of the Han dominant Han ethnic group of China, who migrated southward from Henan and Xian in central China. Today they are scattered throughout Asia in Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand.
At the Festival, volunteers had set up communal low tables with stools inviting anyone to sit and prepare their own Lei Cha. Lei Cha is a Hakka tea-based beverage that consists of a mix of tea leaves that are ground or pounded with various roasted nuts, seeds and grains.
On the tables I saw mortars, earthen bowls and pestles for everyone to use. Matcha tea (pulverized green Sencha Tea) was offered for easy use – customary, the tradition calls for oolong leaves or green tea leaves. The ingredients on the tables were roasted peanuts, black, green and red dried beans, sesame seeds, cashews, sunflowers and pumpkin seeds. The recipe can also call for puffed rice, dried lentils and lotus seeds. Some add salt or sugar depending on one’s taste buds.
The ingredients are ground in a mortar. For proper technique, one must put the palm on top of the pestle and the other hand close to the bowl. Stir for 20 minutes clockwise, or until it is reduced to a paste, add the boiled water over the mixture while continuing to stir until it becomes a thin soup-like beverage. Then it’s ready to drink.
Of course, today one could certainly use a food processor to achieve the “pounded” effect for mixing the tea and ingredients, but the doing is what makes it fun and brings us back to hands-on tradition!
Lei Cha was originally derived from a Hakka soup called the “Three-Raw-Ingredients Soup” consisting of tea leaves crushed with fresh ginger and rice. Today it is often enjoyed with a variety of side dishes made from leek, long beans, kale, string beans, cabbage, dried radish and aduki beans. In Taiwan, it can also be accompanied with Lei Cha Rice, a porridge that consists of many ingredients of choice, such as ground anchovies, nuts, sesame seeds, basil, mint, garlic, cilantro, coriander, peanuts, pepper and salt. The Lei Cha Tea is then poured over the rice and its assorted ingredients are mixed together.
I was thrilled to have found amidst a popular fair in the heart of Manhattan, a community of people of all ages, sitting together around the table, most of them Chinese and not aware of this tradition, grinding and pounding and discover the making of Lei Cha.
I enjoyed the rich and smooth mixture of Lei cha, but a far cry from the pure, delicate oolongs.
Ho͘ ta là! 呼乾啦! Cheers!