From The Garden: Lei cha, a leafy bowl of abundance

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Madam Angel Liew grew up in a traditional Hakka family that believes in serving lei cha as a sign of love and abundance. Now, she continues her family’s tradition by making lei cha with herbs and vegetables grown in her community garden.

Born into a family of farmers, Madam Angel Liew grew up eating Hakka lei cha, a one-bowl dish consisting of steamed garlic rice and stir fried chopped vegetables, once a week.

"My mum and dad were farmers. When you have to spend so much time on the farm, and when you want to make a quick meal, you quickly get what is available in your garden," the 53-year-old founding member of Moulmein-Goldhill NC community garden said.

While commonly known as "Thunder Tea Rice", lei cha got its name from the act of grinding tea leaves and herbs to make the tea-based soup which accompanies the rice bowl dish.

"In Hakka, 'lui' means grind - so lui cha means to 'grind the tea'," she said.

As a child, Madam Liew would watch her mother make lei cha in their kitchen, swiftly chopping different types of vegetables harvested from their backyard garden.

She said: "For Hakka women, if your (cut) vegetables are big and chunky, people would think you are not good. You must have the skill to produce neat and fine work.

"My mother was a fast worker. She would say, 'If you have vegetables with thick stems, you should smash the stem first so that it is easier to chop, and the fragrance will also come out.' That was how she taught us."

Madam Liew's mother would also invite guests to have lei cha as part of their family tradition.

"If you are a good host, you will never let your guests go with lack of food. I always see my mother topping up more food for my aunties - one scoop of this vegetable dish and then more tea - until they can have a meal for two hours."

Now, Madam Liew makes her mother's lei cha using vegetables and herbs grown in her community garden. She has been volunteering at the Moulmein-Goldhill community garden for more than 10 years, tending to over 80 types of herbs, vegetables and ornamental flower plants.

When Madam Liew wants to make lei cha, she will plant vegetables such as chye sim, kailan, mustard green and sayur manis three weeks in advance before inviting her family and friends over for a meal.

Madam Liew is especially proud of her lei cha as it uses vegetables grown without chemicals and pesticides.

"My friends will always say, 'Angel, the taste of your lei cha is so different from those (made) outside.' Maybe because I grow my own vegetables, so I can put more ingredients in my cooking."

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