Rediscovered only recently, this Hakka heritage is a proud and precious delicacy that has been quietly passed down from one generation to another for the last 2,300 years at least. A recipe for Lui-Cha is mentioned in ancient Chinese history at the start of the earliest diaspora of the Hakka dialect group in mainland China. Today, in a time of greater health consciousness and regained respect for organic and natural tonic food, the Hakka Lui-Cha has stepped up and out of the ancient Chinese treasure box and caught international attention.
What is Hakka Lui- Cha? Why is it considered the most green and most potent dish of this century? And why Hakka? For one to truly understand and appreciate Lui-Cha a unique concoction of herbs, seeds, and grains with healing potency, one has to get into the sources of the ingredients, the forefathers who cultivated the herbs, the Chinese traditional medicine background and credibility, and the cultural and social conditions that propagate the keeping and passing of Hakka Lui-Cha.
Lui-Cha showcased Hakka Lui-Cha had its first world stage appearance during the recent World Trade Expo in Shanghai. The Chinese government was showcasing this as a national treasure. But Lui-Cha is unheard of among many Chinese including the Hakka villagers and the younger generations in China. Arguably, Lui-Cha in China can be considered a long lost tradition as the majority of the Hakka population is unaware of their own heritage . This is amazingly not the case of the Kuching Hakka community. Surprisingly, some recent publications by Hakka historians and authoritative figures did not include a Lui-Cha dish in their introduction to Hakka cuisine, customs and traditions in China. Yet this incredible healing tea has been around for centuries. Lui-Cha was mentioned in historical text dating back to the Chinese warring times 2,500 years ago. It was supposedly made famous by a legendary general named Chu Ke Liang who gave the recipe to Guizhou citizenry to ward off diseases. Lui-Cha was also recorded in history with different names like “Three Raw Tea” and “Tea for the Troopers”. “Tea for the Troopers” is a strategic recipe to prepare Lui-Cha (simpler method and fewer ingredients) as a survival food for the Hakka “on the run”. There were five main diasporas in the Chinese history. Among the five turmoils, the Hakka dialect speaking populace was the majority that escaped from the war zones and the executions. But they were not called “Hakka” before the diaspora.
What conditions made the Hakka the keeper of this ancient healing arts? The word “Hakka” means the “guest families” in the Hakka dialect. Guests is a morally-correct term to call the displaced immigrants for the Chinese in those days. So did the Lui-Cha come about because of the diasporas or is it simply a culinary contribution from the Hakka people?
The Greenest Brew There are many ways to brew a Lui-Cha. Historically, there are two types of Lui- Cha, the salty kind was mostly for the laborers and the poor (more salt and carbohydrate) and the sweet kind was for the royal and noble classes (grinding of more white sesame seeds, precious nuts and seeds accompanied by side dishes). There are two salty versions of Lui-Cha. One is traditionally of top potency (this is one of the brews proudly served in Kuching) and the other is more basic, where preparation is simpler. Liking Lui-Cha – a herbaceous savory is an acquired taste. Earliest records showed a similar recipe formulated by a medicine man to help soldiers ward off Malaria during the war. The main medicinal properties are the promotion of immunity, increase in antibodies, detoxification, strengthening and regulation of the flow of ‘qi’ (a term in Chinese medicine to describe the subtle energies that sustain all living things). It also offers a fine balancing of the internal chemistry for secretions and excretions to prevent exhaustion, infection and illnesses. The main featured herb for the traditional recipe is Tai-Ngea in the Hakka dialect, commonly called mugwort. It is bitter, rare and potent yet it is absent from most of the Hakka Lui-Cha recipes. The Kuching Hakka grew it, ground it together with other rarely found traditional herbs serving the tea hot on the spot for all these years. In fact, it is only in Kuching that one can find most of the traditional ingredients called for to prepare a powerful healing Thunder Tea. Hakka Lui-Cha is more than an iconic food for the Hakka dialect group. It is a spirited cuisine which, like a red thread, links the marvel of Chinese heritage back to the beginning of its civilisation. Hakka Lui-Cha encompasses the heart, the mind and the soul of the populace that once considered themselves situated at the center of the earth.
Author: ExCat Chin Teng Teng, Kuching swimmer from Kuching High School and a voice in Radio TV Malaysia before joining Singapore TV and Los Angeles Cable TV as producer. She received a second degree in Asian studies. Her interests in volunteer works and research of the Hakka origins takes her to where “the research of Chinese wisdom calls”.