Tea leaves and their place in some of Singapore’s most well-loved foods.
Tea’s presence in Singapore’s dining scene is often confined to the narrow remits of drinks and desserts. Beyond the usual suspects—Taiwanese bubble tea, teh si and artisanal tea ranges offered in cafés, the leaves of Camellia sinensis form the flavour foundations in many classic Chinese dishes.
1. LEI CHA
Before tea was hailed as a detoxifying lifestyle beverage, it was used as medicine, in baths and even stuffed into pillows. According to some legends, tea leaves were also used to win ancient wars.
During the era of the Three Kingdoms, it was rumored that General Zhang Fei was about to encroach on Chengdu when his soldiers fell ill from a mysterious sickness. Journals wrote that the General then sought medicinal treatment from an old physician who prescribed a concoction of herbs with tea leaves. After drinking the prescription, the soldiers went on to fight and subsequently, win the war.
This mixture, now known as lei cha, is a popular Hakka dish consisting of three to four sides of julienned or diced stir-fried vegetables, rice and crushed peanuts mixed into a thick aromatic tea soup.
Traditionalists would insist that only dried oolong leaves be used for the tea soup as it has toasty floral notes that complements the sweet creamy ground peanuts and herbs used in lei cha blends. However, for a modern twist, green or white tea leaves may also be substituted for oolong. These ingredients are pounded together with a wooden pestle (often made from the wood harvested from guava or jambu trees) into a thick paste and subsequently, cooked with boiling water into a soup.
2. DRAGON WELL TEA SHRIMP
Dragon well tea originates from the tea-producing regions of China’s Zhejiang province. Like most teas, its quality is heavily dependent on terroir and harvesting timelines. Notably, dragon well leaves are only picked before the Qingming Festival or after the Grain Rain Festivals in China, anything else sells on the market for a poor price.
For this dish, dragon well tea leaves are soaked in hot water then tossed and fried with fresh river shrimp marinated in corn starch and salt. The glassy appearance of river shrimp and silver coating of tea leaves are fundamental plating qualities. As such, if one is unable to purchase dragon well tea leaves, only white (as opposed to dark) tea leaves may be used.
3. ZHANGCHA DUCK
Lastly, the secret ingredient for flavour is time. Nothing proves this more than the laborious process of cooking zhangchaduck. A delicacy from Sichuan province, the duck is first marinated, boiled, air-dried then hot smoked over oolong tea and camphor leaves. The hot smoking process is done by frying the oolong and camphor leaves in a large seasoned wok, a bamboo trivet is then placed over the leaves to support the duck that is left to smoke over the aromatics for a few minutes.
Owing to its complicated cooking process, zhangcha duck is seen as a delicacy and only presented at banquets as opposed to being served as a household meal. Slices of the duck should be eaten between gebao—a clam shaped bun.