Do you hear the thunder?
Thunder Tea Rice (擂茶饭）is a traditional Hakka vegetarian dish that is distinctive and addictive. The Hakkas were a culturally distinct racial group of northern Chinese Han stock that migrated to Southern China and formed a significant proportion of overseas Chinese migrants. Because they came later into established regions they were known literally as the guest people (客家人).
Hakka food is distinctive; dishes like abacus beads, Yong Tau Foo, salt baked chicken and Pen Cai are both staples as well as stand out dishes that are featured on special occasions like Chinese New Year celebrations. Thunder Tea Rice is something that is sold in some hawker centers in Singapore but interestingly I have friends who have never eaten it before. I do remember that what made me fall in love with this dish was the abundance of different vegetables as well as the lovely texture of crunchy peanuts and ikan bilis (fried anchovies) and the rich, slightly herby flavor of the tea soup. Apparently Thunder Tea Rice is eaten on the seventh day of Chinese New Year which is also known as 人日 or literally every man’s birthday (traditional Chinese did not celebrate individual birthdays but just one universal birthday a year). The dish was supposed to have 7 vegetables, although for regular cooking most people won’t make all 7 vegetables but just have 3-4 types of vegetables instead.
Anyway the other interesting thing about Thunder Tea Rice is that its name is evocative of the sound of furious chopping in the kitchen. Which is not surprising when you have a crazy amount of vegetables to chop into small bits. Also, the traditional way of preparing the tea paste is to use a mortar and pestle, which, in Malaysia, would not be a stone mortar but actually a bowl with a scary large stick. I’m really thankful for modern blenders, but even my trusty Braun hand blender faltered when we were trying to make our large batch of paste (okay, I was being ambitious and doubled the recipe). Our kitchen was echoing with the high pitched whirring machinery sound of the blender which was probably more annoying than the thumping sounds of chopping and grinding in old time kitchens.
Thunder Tea Rice is a really healthy dish. Most people use white or brown rice as the base, but I use cauliflower rice as a low carb substitute that is perfectly fitting for a vegetable dish. The rice is served with several vegetables as well as firm fried tofu cubes, preserved radish (chye poh), peanuts and fried anchovies. Then a lovely tea soup is poured over the vegetables as a distinct topping. The tea soup doesn’t just have tea leaves but also a combination of herbs such as coriander, mint, basil and mugwort. Mugwort was one of the herbs I didn’t quite know how to find as it is only sold in a few wet markets in Singapore, but I’m so grateful for online shopping as I was able to find fresh mugwort on Shopee. Mugwort lends a distinctive and slightly bitter overtone and I don’t think it can be substituted with anything else. I’m so thankful that I found the fresh herbs online because I was already thinking of growing my own mugwort!
I’ve always loved Thunder Tea Rice and I would have eaten it more frequently were it not so difficult to find the tea paste. I recently also found the paste sold online but it’s not really cheap and not always available. So it makes more sense to make a giant batch of tea paste and to freeze it in batches to use over time.
In the recipe below I have given the proportions of herbs based on researching different recipes online. Because this is such a distinctive dish there will be similarities to other recipes. I’ve recently become acutely aware of the issue of plagiarism as a friend’s heritage cookbook recipes were found in another person’s cookbook. In writing recipes it can be hard for ingredients and proportions not to be similar, especially in extremely distinctive dishes like Thunder Tea rice. Anyway for the record, I will say that the sites that gave me inspiration were from What To Cook Today, the Meatmen channel, Kuali, and KL Liew’s YouTube recipe. I’ve tried out different combinations and the reason why I am finally writing out this recipe is because the proportions seems to work out best to me in terms of taste and flavor. Making Thunder Tea rice is a lot of work as there are so many ingredients and it took some effort to get the combination right. Readers will find similarities but subtle differences in the proportions of ingredients if they compare what I have with other recipes.
In this blog, I’ve had feedback that the recipes are complex and have too many ingredients. Well, this is definitely a complex dish and to preserve the integrity of the flavors I think there is no way to get around it. There are a crazy number of ingredients and a lot of prep work involved but good golly, the results are really worth it. If you do have difficulties making the tea paste or getting the right herbs I guess in this day and age you can order the paste online, and that would cut out a lot of the work.
Thunder Tea Cauliflower Rice
- THUNDER TEA PASTE
- 50 g mugwort
- 50 g coriander (I recommend saw tooth coriander or culantro if you can find it)
- 50 g mint
- 50 g basil
- 100 g peanuts
- 50 g white sesame seeds
- 1 tsp black peppercorns
- 20-30 g young ginger, peeled
- 1 tbsp tea leaves (I used green tea leaves)
- 1 tsp salt (or more to taste)
- 100 ml hot water (for blending with the paste)
- 900 ml water to pour over tea paste before serving
- 1 head of cauliflower
- 1/2 medium onion, diced
- 1 tsp salt
- 1/2 tsp ground white pepper
- 1 tbsp peanut oil
- 1 head of garlic, cloves peeled and separated and minced finely
- 200 g long beans, diced
- 200 g shanghai green vegetable, diced
- 200 g chye sim, diced
- 200 g koo chye (chives), diced
- 200 g mani cai (also known as sayur manis in Malay or sauropus androgynus)
- 200 g winged beans, diced
- 200 g kai lan, diced
- 2 blocks of pressed tofu
- 100 g preserved radish
- 150 g dried shrimp
- 1 cup of split dried anchovies
- 100 g chopped peanuts
- peanut oil for frying
- THUNDER TEA PASTE
- Pluck the leaves of the herbs and discard the stems.
- Toast the peanuts and sesame seeds till fragrant, then blend together with the black peppercorns with a spice grinder.
- Blend the herbs, ground peanut and sesame seeds, salt and pepper, tea leaves and 100 ml of hot water. Depending on the size of your blender you may need to do this in batches. 4.The paste can be kept in the fridge for a few days if not using immediately or frozen for later use. Just before serving, add 900 ml of water and bring to a simmer and stir it through well. Serve hot.
- Use a food processor to break down the florets into small rice-sized pellets.
- Using a large non-stick skillet, heat up the peanut oil over medium heat. Stir fry the onions till fragrant and translucent.
- Add the cauliflower pellets, salt and pepper and stir fry for a few minutes. You may want to taste the rice periodically to make sure that the pellets become slightly soft. Do not over fry as cauliflower can get mushy when overcooked. Set aside.
- With a dry skillet, toast the chopped peanuts. Set aside.
- Add 1-2 tsp of oil to the skillet and stir fry the preserved radish till fragrant and the radish pieces become less translucent. Set aside.
- Press the tofu between 2 kitchen clothes and weight with a plate on top for 15 minutes. Wipe away excess water and cut the tofu into 1 cm sized cubes. Add 1/2 cup oil to a wok and deep fry till crispy and golden. Set aside.
- Add 1/2 cup oil to the wok and deep fry the ikan bilis (anchovies) till they are crispy and brown.
- Soak the dried shrimp in water for at least half and hour. Drain, then pan fry in a non-stick skillet. When toasted, blend it till the shrimp is broken down into fine shreds. Set aside.
- For the vegetables, cook individually as follows: add 1 tbsp peanut oil to the wok and stir fry 1 tsp of garlic, then add the vegetable and stir fry till wilted. Set aside.
For assembly, put 1 small bowl of cauliflower rice in the middle of the plate, then place all the toppings in a circle around the cauliflower rice. Pour a ladle of tea soup over the rice, then mix well and enjoy!