Lei cha (擂茶) is a traditional Hakka drink that draws a lot of tourists to the small town of Beipu in Hsinchu county. Literally translated it means “ground” or “pounded” tea, but the name is misleading. When I think of drinking tea, I envision a relaxing, quiet time sipping away at a light beverage, but this isn’t the case with Lei cha. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Lei cha is a thick, heavily flavoured brew that will probably leave you more thirsty after you drink it.
This concoction has different origin stories.
Because of constant warfare in northern China, the Hakka people left and migrated to the south. Some accounts claim that Lei cha was invented during this migration as a convenient way to “eat-on-the-run” as well as to satisfy hunger with limited resources. Others say that Lei cha came from an even earlier time in China when it was used as a preventative measure against the plague. To this day, some believe that Lei cha has medicinal properties.
Whatever the origins, Lei cha has stuck around, and is one of the signature tourist attractions of Beipu township in northern Taiwan.
As I mentioned before, Lei cha is nothing like tea. It’s much more of a hearty meal supplement. Besides containing tea leaves, it contains nuts, grains, seeds and beans. Unlike traditional teas which have one predominant flavour, Lei cha is a fusion of many different flavours. It’s much thicker than a regular tea, with a creamy body packed full of nutrients. Traditionally, Lei cha used to be savory and unsweetened, but now, it’s turned into a sweeter drink.
Like a tea ceremony, there’s more to the Lei cha experience than just drinking the tea. Of course, when you go to Beipu, there are ready-made, pre packaged glasses of Lei cha available for purchase, but you’re selling yourself short if you just buy it. Part of the fun (and experience) is getting together with friends and preparing the tea from scratch.
There are a few shops around Beipu old street where you can make the tea from scratch, and here’s my story.
We found a teashop right next to the Beipu old street. Here is the outside:
Inside it was clean and cozy looking:
We were sat at a wooden table, and the waitress brought out a big clay bowl with a giant wooden pestle. The bowl contained green tea leaves. She also brought out a dish with peanuts, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds (I think) and 2 types of grain – one black and one white.
We were instructed to grind up the tea leaves until they were a fine powder. This is accomplished by turning the pestle in a circular direction – not pounding it:
So I manfully started doing this. Since it was just the girlfriend and me, grinding was my job. After a few minutes of this, my arms started to tire so I had to stand up to change the angle. I had no idea that tea leaves would be so bloody resilient to being ground up. After being rejected (by the waitress) as not fine enough a few times, I really turned up the heat and ground those buggers up to a fine powder. Then she instructed me to pour the seeds and nuts in and continue:
After what seemed like an eternity (lots of sweat and tiring muscles), the mixture in the bowl started to take on a thick, sort of pasty texture – the oils and moisture from the grains and nuts were firming up the dry leaves and grain particles into a mush:
At this point it smelled really fragrant – a nutty/green tea aroma – very nice.
The waitress then added a small amount of hot water to the bowl:
Yes, it looks incredibly grotesque, like something a diarrhetic monkey would produce, but with some stirring and gradual addition of water:
it evolved into something more palatable:
Voila! Here is your Lei cha – a green, thick, creamy liquid that smells very nutty and organic.
Once the tea was completed, some side dishes were bought out. Moaji (sweet, chewy, doughy bread-like awesomeness) with sweetened crushed peanuts:
wafers of some sort, sweet and savoury:
and beaten rice:
that you add to your bowl of Lei cha like so:
Ice was also brought out in case you wanted to chill the Lei cha. We ate it out of bowls with a spoon, like a soup. It was very filling and I had to ask for a glass of water to go along with my “tea”. More like a meal.
Very cool (albeit tiring) experience. You can find Beipu old street here: