OK, Chinese Pesto is a lie – that isn’t any official name by any means. It just feels appropriate because of similarities to something more familiar to most people – herbs and nuts ground by a mortar and pestle. Of course, beyond that, the dishes are quite different. Lei Cha is a soup brewed with the contents in the mortar. Pesto is a sauce that uses the contents in the mortar with other foods, such as pasta (see FoodWishes’ recipe). Pestle Tea is what a Serious Eat’s article calls Lei Cha. If you are liberal enough about names, you might even call this Chinese Matcha (matcha is essentially tea leaves ground into a powder form) or the earliest form of milk tea.
Table of Contents
What is Lei Cha?
TLDR (Too Long, Didnt Read); Tea/other leafy herbs/vegetables + seeds/legumes/grains ground together in mortar and pestle, made into soup. Interlinked with Hakka people.
Lei Cha is a soup that can be found in Southern China, Taiwan, Malaysia and Singapore, as well as where there might be Hakka people or influences. Made from ingredients including tea leaves, herbs, nuts/seeds/grains and other flavorings ground together, traditionally using a mortar and pestle. Lei Cha places a heavy emphasis on the use of local ingredients. Traditionally, even the pestles are made from a local tree bark, which infuses a little flavor into the pounded tea. These pestles are often also heirlooms, passed down to generations and shortened from the continuous pounding and grinding from everyday use (for families that still use them).
The Chinese characters are “擂茶” (Lei Cha), with “擂” referring to the grinding action in a mortar “擂钵” (Lei Bo) and pestle “擂棍 ” (Lei Gun), and “茶” meaning tea. So technically all modern Lei Cha made using blenders or food processors are not Lei Cha. While it seems common to call this dish Thunder (雷, also pronounced “Lei”) Tea, this is probably a misnomer or mis-translation. “Ground Tea” would probably be a more accurate translation. There are many names for Lei Cha, including Cai Cha(菜茶, Vegetable Tea), Xian Cha (咸茶, Salted Tea), Thunder Tea, Lui Cha, Pestle Tea, San Sheng Tang (三生湯), You Ma Cha (油麻茶, Oil & Sesame Tea), Chao Mi Cha (炒米茶, Fried Grain Tea), Ku Geng (苦羹, Bitter Soup), Ming Zhou (茗粥, Tea Porridge)… you get the idea. Each region that has Lei Cha got their own way of categorizing and names for Lei Cha. In Hakka dialect, the pronunciation for the Chinese Characters “擂茶”, is more like “Lui Cha” (‘Lui’ pronounced like the name Louis without the ‘s’).
As mentioned in my review for a Hor Poh Hakka Lei Cha stall, Lei Cha itself does not have a specified recipe, but is a generalized method to make ground tea using whatever is available fresh locally. There are at least dozens regional variations of Lei Cha, and there isn’t a specific form or taste for the dish. Taste wise, some Lei Cha may be more savory, and then some sweet like a desert. In general, variants vary in the ratio of nuts/grains/legumes (Sesame, rice, soy beans, and the such) to leafy things (tea leaves, vegetables, herbs). You might find some similar to milk tea, and some similar to pesto in soup form, but they are all Lei Cha! Because there are so many variants, this article isn’t an all encompassing listicle for types of Lei Cha. Other than the regional variants that I haven’t discovered, there is probably some backwater village in China making some variant of Lei Cha not similar to anything in this list.
TLDR; People grind tea since 4000+ years ago. Hakka people and few other ethnic groups adopt that as culture. Hakka people migrate. Lei Cha culture goes to wherever Hakka people are.
王增能 (Wang Zeng Neng), author of 《客家饮食文化》(Hakka Food Culture) is of the opinion that Lei Cha is the most primitive way China began to drink tea, and China’s tea culture has its roots in Lei Cha. It is said that ethnics of ZhongYuan or the Central Plain, which is an area monumental in Chinese civilization history, were making and drinking Lei Cha even before the formation of the Hakka identity (which is looong and complicated). Up until the end of the Yuan dynasty and the beginnings of the Ming dynasty (about year 1368-ish), Lei Cha began to slowly disappear, with the exception of Hakka, the She people, and some minority groups in Southwest China preserving it as part of their culture.
With an adage that goes “无擂茶不成客” (roughly translates to “Without Lei Cha, you aren’t a guest”), it goes without saying that Lei Cha is now an essential part of Hakka culture. Lei Cha’s origin is deeply intertwined with the Hakka’s people history and Southern migration. The name Hakka, 客家 (pronounced “ke jia” in Mandarin), in its literal translation means “guest family”. Migrants not from their current place of stay might also be called Hakka. Unlike other Chinese Ethnicity, “Hakka” people aren’t named after the place they are from, like Hainanese (people from Hainan), Fujianese (people from Fujian). The Hakka is one of the most diasporic Chinese ethnicity, and have been through countless migrations in history. The Hakka were nomadic, and often lived in mountainous areas. Lei Cha was a way to use grains and herbs found while travelling for sustenance.
While today you can find people who clearly identify as Hakka, nobody really knows where the origin of Hakka people is. Although, there is rather fuzzy evidence that they are related to Han Chinese.
As far as physical evidences go, 徐興根 (Xu Xing Gen), author of the article ＜客家擂茶的起源、分佈與種類＞ (Origins of Hakka Lei Cha, its Distribution and Types) said that archaeologists discovered evidences of early versions of mortar and pestle, 4000 or more years ago in the Jing Xiang Region (荊湘地區, modern Hubei or Hunan), as well as the Lake Tai regions (太湖地區), suggesting those to be the origins of tea drinking history. Lei Cha’s development stage was in the Wuyue region (吳越地區), then subsequently in the developmental phase was majorly in the Hangzhou Bay (吳越地區) and following the migration of the Hakka, subsequently spread across various regions and the globe.
So while Lei Cha isn’t exclusively a Hakka tradition or cuisine, the Hakkas play a pretty huge role in Lei Cha’s spread as a dish.
TLDR; War. Illness happens. Soldiers drink Lei Cha and get better.
In the Three Kingdoms period, in a war between Liu Bei and Cao Cao, many of Liu Bei’s army men were said to be ill from a pandemic. But after drinking Lei Cha from the locals, they got better and went on to win the battle. There are also people who say it is Zhang Fei.
And then there are similar stories for Ma Yuan, receiving Lei Cha from Ethnic minority Wu Ling Man near the Taohuayuan area in the year 41. There is also Yang Me‘s army using Lei Cha as a way to acclimatize soldiers in their attempts to stop a mutiny.
Hor Poh Hakka’s legend also goes that during the Northern Song Dynasty, Pan Mei‘s army was fighting in the Hor Poh Hakka people’s area, and were down with illness (hey, sounds very familiar). An old Hor Poh lady rushed by and mixed up a “secret” concoction of Green Tea Leaves, Ginger, and Rice, and used a mortar and pestle to make Lei Cha. The use of these three ingredients gave it the name San Sheng Tang (三生湯. Sheng “生” here could be a double entendre, referring to the ingredients being raw, as well as being nourishing, as in “养生”). Although this seems to be the original three elements to a Lei Cha, what makes a Lei Cha nowadays seem to be a little different. After ingesting the Lei Cha, having a day’s rest and sweating a ton, the soldiers were… you know the story.
There are probably a lot more other War legends that I didn’t find, but you can tell that Lei Cha is renowned for its medicinal properties. While these legends aren’t very useful without any explanation to how locals got it as part of their culture in the first place, these legends DID tell us the areas and time when Lei Cha can be found commonly.
As mentioned, there are dozens of variations of Lei Cha, with traditional ingredients likely to be seasonal and region specific. While there are ways to classify Lei Cha into categories, I will not attempt to do that here. For instance, the English Wiki says that Lei Cha in general has two types; Hakka and Hunan, but that divide is too broad to be meaningful for me.
Taohuayuan Lei Cha
The top Google results for Taohuayuan might lead to The Peach Blossom Spring, an old Chinese fable and the most expensive house in China. But more than likely, it is referring to Hunan’s Taohuayuan, an actual place in China. Here, Lei Cha is called Ku Geng (苦羹, Bitter Soup) , or <秦人擂茶> (Qin Ren Lei Cha, Qin People’s Lei Cha).
The oldest type of Lei Cha in this list, with about 2000 years of history, this Lei Cha is not only an essential part of their culture, some even say that other variants of Lei Cha is derived from here. A visitor to Taohuayuan, close friend or stranger, will be welcomed by the fragrance of Qin Ren Lei Cha, 12 plates and then 48 dishes the likes of Chili Lotus, potato crisps, popcorn rice, rice crackers, corn, buckwheat cakes, pickled vegetables, Baba bread (蒿叶粑粑). With rules like “三碗不下席,六碗不出源” (‘No leaving your seat with only three bowls, or the place with six’), visitors wouldn’t be allowed to leave the place unhappy.
Taohuayuan Lei Cha is nuttier, with a dull greenish grey color. Ingredients that are seen typically would be Tea leaves, Rice, Ginger, Salt, Soy Bean, Sesame, Garlic, peppers, peanuts, Tangerine peels, Licorice, mineral water.
A video of modern Taohuayuan Lei Cha in a restaurant:
Hor Poh 河婆 Hakka Lei Cha
At the time of writing this post in Jan 2019, this is probably the most well known version of Lei Cha in English speaking communities, as this is the common version in Malaysia and Singapore, where most of the population speak English. 河婆 Hor Poh is one of the few Hakka clans, coming from the Guangdong, Jiexi county. Jiexi’s Lei Cha is similar, if not the same to this.
Placing a larger emphasis on the vegetables and herbs, traditional recipes would use about 7 types of vegetables to make the soup, with common vegetables/herbs used seemingly to be Basil (my reason for adding the click-bait “Chinese Pesto”), Mugwort, Ku Li Xin (苦辣芯/苦粒心, seems to be Acenthopanax trifoliateus, but I can’t confirm) and Mint. Lei Cha is served beside a rice bowl, filled with various side dishes such as Tofu, sautéd local vegetables, pickled radishes, dried shrimps, or other dishes depending on the cook.
Malaysia and Singapore’s version might feature the use of more tropical herbs and vegetables as South East Asian countries (like the use of Thai Basil). Though they can be found in Singapore and Malaysia hawker centers, food courts or kopitiam, in single servings, it is not common since Hakka Lei Cha is not a very popular dish compared to other food.
As said, Jiexi Lei Cha is similar to Hor Poh Hakka Lei Cha, but with have various ways of eating and categorizing Lei Cha:
- Fan Cha (饭茶, Rice tea): Essentially the same as the Hor Poh Hakka Lei Cha shown above, but eaten by pouring the Lei Cha into the bowl of rice.
- Mi Gu Cha (米骨茶, Rice Bone Tea): Can’t find many sources talking about the “Rice Bone” (米骨, using a literal translation here since I don’t know exactly what this is), but it seems to be unhulled rice cooked in a wok, then dried and hulled. This “Rice Bone” is then ground using mortar and pestle, and put into a bowl together like you would for Fan Cha, with peanuts and the other desired side dishes, to somewhat like a porridge.
- Pu Mi Cha (烳米茶, Puffed Rice Tea): “Rice Bone” is used to make puffed rice by frying in a wok, then added to a bowl with Lei Cha and the other side dishes.
Min Xi 閩西 Hakka Lei Cha
A place with a significant Hakka population. Min Xi Lei Cha is traditionally categorized into two types:
1.米茶 (Mi Cha, or Rice Tea): Also traditionally called Ming Zhou (茗粥, Tea Porridge). Tea leaves, ginger and rice are soaked in water, then made into a paste using a mortar and pestle. Then other ingredients like chives or potato strips are added in to make a porridge. Mushrooms, peanuts, sesame seeds or meat floss can be added as side dishes.
2.香料茶 (Xiang Liao Cha, or Spiced Tea): The more modern Lei Cha, where all the ingredients are added directly into the mortar and pestle to make a paste. Hot water is then added to this paste to make Lei Cha.
The basic ingredients for Min Xi Lei Cha is Tea Leaves, Rice, Sesame seeds, Soybeans, peanuts, salt and mandarin orange peels, with unspecified vegetables and herbs. But there really isn’t a “rule” or “recipe”, as said previously, since you can add glutinous rice, black eyed peas, kombu or rice flour, among other possibilities. Depending on the season, herbs like Mint or Mugwort can be used for the summers; Marigolds or Chrysanthemum for Autumn; bamboo fruits for Winter. Like the Hor Poh version, it is not uncommon to see a variety of side dishes to make a complete meal.
Taiwan Beipu Hakka Lei Cha
Taiwan Hakka Lei Cha is the newest type of Lei Cha on this list, served like a dessert alongside snacks like Hakka Mochi, biscuits, fried tofu and candied fruit, and then topped with puffed rice for a crunchy mouthfeel. The Lei Cha itself is made using tea leaves, sesame seeds and nuts. Taiwan’s version is very modernized and liberal, so don’t be surprised if you find some versions that use almonds or pine nuts, or if you have seen the SeriousEats’ article, Fang Gourmet adding pumpkin seeds, cashews and walnuts. You can even find Lei Cha ice cream and shaved ice in Lei Cha DIY shops in Taiwan.
When the Hakkas migrated to Taiwan, they discovered that the mountainous regions of Taiwan were very similar to South Ganzhou, Min Xi, GuangDong ) and suitable for growing tea. This resulted in many Hakka families becoming Tea producers and merchants.
While the conditions for Lei Cha to flourish and spread as a culture seem to be there, there were several limiting factors for the proliferation of Lei Cha in Taiwan. First is the Japanese colonization of Taiwan. The second is that Hakkas were considered somewhat of an “illegal immigrant” or “invisible” in Taiwan despite Hakkas taking up 15 to 20% of current Taiwan’s population. The third is Martial Law in Taiwan, which prohibited dialects and lasted until 1987. Hakka culture didn’t start to spread until then. You find more elaboration about the history of Taiwanese Hakkas here.
It was in 1998 where Taiwanese Lei Cha is invented. From The Hakka Cookbook: Chinese Soul Food From Around The World:
“The Beipu Agricultural Department searched for a local specialty to generate tourism and keep their Hakka village alive. They interviewed Yei Pong Shell, a grandmother who came from China’s Guangdong Province to Taiwan when she was 28. When she went to Beipu to demonstrate how to make the tea, she was asked if it could be sweetened. She said that adding sweets would not hurt. Since then, this savoury tea from mainland China has developed into a distinctive tea ceremony dish with sweet condiments served in Taiwan’s Hakka villages.”
This means to say, that the representative version of Taiwan Hakka Lei Cha is a modification to fit the modern palettes (and tourists’). Hor Poh Lei Cha can also still be found (similar to the ones found in Singapore/Malaysia), but most of the Taiwanese Lei Cha you can buy is, as a result, a unique creation more like a dessert than a meal. As a food used to boost tourism, this also meant that you can find readily purchasable packets of instant Lei Cha, with a heavy emphasis on its health properties.
Shanwei Xian Cha 汕尾咸茶
Also from the Hakka, pronounced like “Hum Cha”. The soup base is similar to Hor Poh’s, made with lots of herbs and vegetables to make a green soup. The main difference is that Lei Cha is added into a bowl of peanuts, sesame and puffed rice.
Cai Cha (菜茶 )
When you start to make variations to Shanwei’s Xian Cha, and make it buffet style, serving the green soup with different sides like fried mee, pork, squid, vegetables, prawns, mushrooms, and literally any ingredient you want, they call it Cai Cha. You can eat it anyway you want, dumping the side dishes into the soup or separately.
For both Xian Cha and Cai Cha, people are increasingly also replacing the traditional greenish Lei Cha with modern versions, using a simple grounded tea topped with sesame and nuts for Xian Cha and pork or chicken broth for the buffet style Cai Cha. For Shanwei people, perhaps Lei Cha and the modern versions are similar enough to be the same thing, but from an outsider perspective reading about various Lei Cha, I would say that the modern version using broths is significantly different.
Video showing modern version of Xian Cha and Cai Cha (in Chinese):
Of noteworthy is the usage of corn in their Lei Cha. The Miao also had a unique way of making Lei Cha Porridge).
Corn as a featured ingredient, is roasted and then hulled using mortar and pestle to make a corn porridge. The corn porridge is then added to lard, salt, Sichuan pepper leaves, and seasoned to taste with Sichuan pepper, garlic, ginger, chili, soy sauce and vinegar. Another interesting point is the lack of tea leaves, suggesting that the action of using the mortar and pestle is what makes Lei Cha to the Miao.
Wei Shan 沩山 Lei Cha
A mountain in Hunan, Lei Cha here is made with sesame, peanuts and tea leaves. The main difference here is that instead of using water to add to the tea paste, a soup made with spring water, corn and peanuts is used instead, resulting in this greyish color instead of the brighter green. Extra roasted sesame seeds and soy beans are then added to the brew. The whole process can be watched in this video.
Anhua 安化 Lei Cha
Anhua Lei Cha doesn’t seem to have a definitive type, and is similar to the general method of “grind sesame and grains, tea leaves, add water”. I can find versions that look like the Hor Poh version and is greenish in color, but I can also find versions that are almost creamy white in color. The basic difference seems that Anhua people might use beans, such as red beans or green beans, more than the other variants. Of note is that the region also produces Anhua Dark Tea.
What about other areas/county?
To reiterate, this article isn’t an all encompassing listicle for types of Lei Cha. You can find Lei Cha in Jiangle, Ruijin, Wuhua, and various other counties in China. Some of them I haven’t discovered, but some of them I don’t see too much of a difference to other Lei Cha already found in the article.
Dou Zi Zhi Ma Cha/Bean Sesame Tea (豆子芝麻茶)
Lei Cha’s history, meant that there are probably a lot of spin off versions of Lei Cha. Bean Sesame Tea is one of the more notable ones that I can find.
A tea in Hunan, made with Ginger, salt, soy beans, sesame, tea leaves and water. Very similar to Lei Cha in ingredients, but with a much simpler method of “roast seeds and beans, add all ingredients to bowl with hot water”.
Most of the sources are already above, but here is the section I state other sources where I stole my information from. As far as possible, I try to find English sources, but most of the information are in Chinese.
Impression of Wandering –The Landscape and Imagery of Hakka Lei Cha – A paper on Lei Cha, though in Mandarin. Heavily references a few Hakka Lei Cha books. Bits and pieces of information that I can find on web, I can usually find it summarized and organized here.
Baidu on Lei Cha – Chinese Wikipedia on Lei Cha.
Taiwan’s Hakka Activism
The Star (Malaysian news site)’s article on Hakka Lei Cha