Thunder tea rice @ Joo chiat
I first heard of thunder tea rice or lei cha in Sarawak where there is a large Hakka population. I did not actually eat the dish there, but read about it on a random food blog about Kuching while trying to work out how to fill my free time there. The logistics to eat thunder tea rice in Kuching proved more than I could handle (both distance from my hotel and early opening hours), but ever since then I have kept my eyes open for hawkers selling it in Singapore - determined to finally taste this dish. Thunder tea rice visually reminded me of vegetarian version of bibimbap a dish I got addicted to when working next door to a (since sadly closed) Korean eatery back in Sydney. One day I was meeting someone for a drink at the Cider Pit on Joo Chiat Rd, when I noticed next door was an eatery called “Thunder Tea Rice”. I must have walked past it 100 times and never noticed it, perhaps because I did not know what it was and the fact is it inset from the road. I made it my mission to go there…for lunch the next day, first I had some cider to drink.
The lei cha itself refers to the the ground tea soup, made primarily from tea leaves and mixed with other herbs, nuts, and seeds. All the ingredients are ground using a giant mortar and pestle until a thick green paste texture is achieved. A detailed description of the process can be seen in Netflix’s Flavourful Origins. The soup is created by mixing it with boiling water and often garnishing with some sesame seeds.
Accompanying the lei cha is a bowl of rice (often brown), finely shredded vegetables, tofu, peanuts, and fried ikan bilis (anchovies for the non-malay speakers), hence the similarities to bibimbap. The texture of the different ingredients is half the pleasure in eating this dish, softness of cabbage followed by the crunch of nuts and ikan bilis. My personal preference, which I have not seen others doing yet, is to pour the lei cha into the bowl of vegetables and rice, creating a soup.
It feels as if it is one of the more healthy hawker dishes here in Singapore, although I have nothing to back that statement up with. However, it does make you feel good after one two many ciders the night before. Surprisingly, I have yet to find a Singaporean who shares with me this love of thunder tea rice 🤷♂
P.S. You have to try the homemade chilli sauce, hidden within the drinks fridge. Has a good kick.
P.P.S. I have since learnt the thunder comes from the lei sounding like the chinese word for thunder. The origins of the dish are the Hakka Hor Poh clan. While in China the leicha was consumed as a beverage, it has taken on this new form in Southeast Asia.
Coffee shop: Thunder tea rice
Address: #01-04, 328 Joo Chiat Rd, Joo Chiat
Hours: 10:00am - 9:30pm