I don’t remember the first time I heard of lei cha – a pounded or ground tea also known as Hakka pestle cereal. I do remember my surprise when my mom, a Taiwanese Hakka very proud of her heritage and knowledgeable in many aspects of the Hakka culture, revealed her own unfamiliarity with lei cha. My cousins, Andrea and Sean, in Taiwan responded to my e-mail inquiries and commented on lei cha’s new-found popularity on the island in recent years. To my Hakka relatives, lei cha was not a nostalgic concoction.
One of the websites my cousins suggested I visit, however, traces lei cha’s origin to China’s Three Kingdoms period (220–280). Folklore says that an elderly herbal doctor cooked crushed fresh ginger, rice, and tea leaves according to his ancestral recipe and the pasty cereal – named straight-forwardly “three raw ingredients soup” – rejuvenated weary soldiers. Hakka immigrants who later settled in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and China’s provinces, such as Hunan and Guangdong, continued the tradition by enriching their lei cha with various beans and grains, including peanuts, black and white sesame, black beans, red beans, green beans, Job’s tears, lotus nuts, pumpkin seeds, and oats. Hakka immigrants on Taiwan’s eastern coast are probably more familiar with lei cha, both as a regular dish and thirst quencher. My ancestors settled in today’s northwestern county of HsinChu. Communication between the island’s western and eastern regions, divided by numerous mountain ranges, was scarce in the old days. It is also possible that lei cha was just not my ancestors’ cup of tea.
Since I do not possess the appropriate pestle and ceramic bowl, I do not plan to make my own lei cha. Southern California has yet to have an eatery that serves freshly prepared lei cha. Finding prepackaged lei cha, on the other hand, is easily accomplished at an Asian supermarket. Not surprisingly, this 100% natural, healthy lei cha, which contains no preservatives or artificial flavors and colors, is flavored with matcha, which I certainly prefer to ground tea leaves. Nonetheless, I look forward to tasting the original three-ingredient lei cha and experiencing a taste that is millenniums old.