Lei cha or "Thunder tea rice" is a popular Hakka dish which dates back nearly 2000 years. The dish consists of steamed white rice, garnished with toasted nuts, seeds, fried tofu, and finely-chopped vegetables, drenched with a green-hued tea soup brewed using a paste made from finely-blended herbs (coriander, mint, mugwort, etc.), puffed rice, sesame seeds, peanuts and tea leaves.
In China, the Hakkas are known as the “Guest Families” - a curious anomaly among China’s diverse collection of Han peoples who all share the same ethnicity, but come from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds: the Hakkas do not have their own homeland or home province.
The Hakkas are thought to originate from Northern China (modern-day Hebei & Henan) but driven southwards as far back as the 2nd-century BC by wars and invasions by the Huns and other nomadic tribes from Central Asia.
Holding onto their language and culture, the Hakkas settled across a large swarths of south-eastern China, mainly in Guangdong province. Without their own homeland, the Hakkas became the “gypsies” of China, always regarded as “guests” of whichever province that hosted them. Sometimes, things come to a head, like the Hakka-Punti Wars in the mid-19th-century fought between the Hakkas and the Cantonese in Guangdong where up to 1 million died.
Outside China, the Hakka diaspora spread from Taiwan to Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, all the way to Kolkata, India. Today, Hakkas are estimated to number upwards of 120 million, 60% of whom live in Guangdong. Those in South-east Asia are often quite prominent in business and politics, as the Hakkas are known to be very resourceful and more aggressive than the other Chinese dialect groups. Lee Kuan Yew, the founder of modern Singapore, was a Hakka.
In Malaysia, the Hakkas are the majority Chinese in the Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak, whereas every state in West Malaysia has a Hakka populace. The Hakkas constituted the second-largest Chinese dialect group in Malaysia behind the dominant Hokkiens (Fujianese).
On Penang island, where the Chinese are overwhelmingly Hokkiens, the town of Balik Pulau on the western side of the island is almost all-Hakka. The Hakkas are traditionally a landlocked people, and many also loved settling in the hilly terrains surrounding Balik Pulau.
Yesterday, we journeyed forth into the hills of Balik Pulau to lunch at Nature Fruit Farm, owned by Hakka fruit-grower, Tan Jit Keong. Together with his wife, the Tans also operate a small cafe which serve Hakka food, but which needed advance reservations and specific food orders, as the Tans would be busy tending to their fruit orchards otherwise.
There’s an old-world feel about the whole place - rustic and caught in a time warp of sorts.
Our lunch consisted of:
Hakka lei cha - a relatively mild-flavored version here as the chef, Josephine Tan (a cousin of owner, Mr Tan Jit Keong) is more restrained in her use of heavy-smelling herbs, in favor of those with lighter notes. The green tea soup here is more liquid than those I’d had elsewhere though. Usually, “lei cha” soup is thickened with ground/pounded peanuts and sesame seeds, so I’m surmising that she uses less of those for her rendition.
- Ngiong tew foo - fried, then braised tofu stuffed with minced pork, and topped with chopped fresh scallions. This was the tastiest item I had during this meal. The minced pork is quite salty - very likely to contain salted fish or dried cuttlefish worked in.
The Hakkas, being generally a landlocked people, but who still observe the Han-Chinese precept of offering three types of meats (creatures of the sea, land and air) in their worship of the traditional Chinese gods, would usually use dried/preserved cuttlefish to represent “sea creatures”, where seafaring peoples like the Hokkiens would use fresh fish.
So, dried cuttlefish has become an indelible part of Hakka cuisine.
Durian flower salad - this is a seasonal specialty, and only available right about now, when the durian trees in Penang began to bloom. Balik Pulau has some of the most famous durian plantations in all of Malaysia and, pre-COVID, would see Malaysians from other states, and foreign visitors from Singapore, Hong Kong and China flying in just for their durian-tasting holidays.
The durian flowers do not have the obnoxious smell of the ripened durian fruit, though - just a gentle floral scent. It has a pleasant crunch, and is suitable for salads. The dressing here is a bit too mild for my taste, though - a light kaffir lime juice dressing, and fresh lime peel from the fruit to give the salad a citrusy character, with some toasted peanuts thrown in for the crunch.
Dessert: Durian mochi - served in dainty little Chinese tea cups, these were typical flavor bombs. Lovely for durian-lovers like me, but probably a sensory nightmare for those averse to the King of Fruits.
Nature Fruit Farm Resort (留连轩)
311 MK 7 Kampung Genting 11000 Balik Pulau, Penang, Malaysia.
Tel/WhatsApp: +60124887773 (Mr Tan)