Singapore is home to one of the oddest yet also healthiest fast foods in the world: Thunder Tea Rice. The name itself is confusing – is it tea or is it rice? The answer is both.
Similar to a grain bowl, which has become an exceedingly popular healthy luncheon food in recent years, Thunder Tea Rice has been around for thousands of years, said to have first been created in the Three Kingdoms period in China, which took place from 220 to 280 AD. During this time of great war, which started with the end of the Han dynasty and was followed by the Jin dynasty, this meal was fed to soldiers to keep them healthy and strengthen their immune systems.
Originally this green soup and rice dish is known as Hakka Lei Cha Fan, or Lei Cha for short, which actually translates to Grind Tea Rice. The ‘thundering’ version of this ancient dish was created in Singapore 18 years ago by Alvin Tan and Callie Lim, whom upon first tasting their concoction of a green tea-based herbal soup broth, reported experiencing a lightning-like shock on their tongues. This is where the ‘thunder’ in the dish’s name comes from.
The creators received much criticism for calling their dish thunder tea, as the literal translation of Hakka Lei Cha Fan is ‘Grind Tea Rice’, and not ‘thunder tea rice’. Today, however, Thunder Tea Rice has become a staple in any Singapore hawker centre, and a much-loved national dish.
Although Thunder Tea Rice is served at hawker centres and is considered a kind of local fast food, preparation of the soup itself is an arduous process. The green soup is made by grinding green tea with a concoction of herbs using a mortar and pestle, including basil, mint, mugwort, Chinese parsley, sesame, coriander, groundnut, saw-tooth and Siberian ginseng. This mixture of herbs is then blended with hot water, resulting in a potent, green-coloured soup, which is served beside a bowl of rice topped with a variety of healthy vegetables, resulting in a dish that is high in antioxidants, nutrition, and fibre.
With the recent worldwide pandemic, more and more people are becoming health conscious and turning to nutritious plant-based foods and herbs to strengthen their immune system. Although several Thunder Tea Rice outlets have closed due to recent economic challenges, Lei Cha has never been more popular.
I tried this dish for the first time recently from Traditional Haaka Rice, a food stall at a Hawker Center in Tanjong Pagar, Downtown Singapore. The scene itself was abuzz with office workers hungry for their lunch, donning masks due to Covid-19 government regulations. Like most of the other stalls, this one was unassuming, and I probably would have walked right past it if hadn’t come in search of this particular dish.
At this stall, the vegan version of this dish is called ‘7 Vegetable Thunder Tea Rice’. You can choose your rice, either white or brown, which is then topped with an assortment of vegetables and toppings, including chopped green beans, tofu, leafy greens, shredded leek, peanuts, and preserved radish. A second bowl was handed over to me with the green herbal tea soup. All this for less than S$5.
When I found a spot to sample this local dish, I poured the entire contents of the soup into the rice bowl. At the bottom of the soup bowl I could see the remnants of the ground herbs that make up this healthy broth. I have to admit, the dish wouldn’t win any aesthetic prizes, but the taste, I can assure you, is worthy of several rewards.
The soup itself tastes unusual, but is extremely tasty, with a slight but welcomed bitterness, similar to green tea. Combined with the brown rice and vegetables, you have a dish that –spoon-upon-spoon – tickled my taste buds and filled my gut with a wholesome happiness. It even gave me a little buzz from the caffeine in the green tea! I have since grown fond of Thunder Tea Rice and come back to enjoy this satisfying and nutrient-dense dish on a regular basis.
Traditional Haaka Rice 河婆客家擂茶
Blok 6 Tanjong Pagar Plaza, Stall 02-21, Singapore 081006