KEPONG, Oct 12 — What is this viscous green goo sloshing unnervingly in large plastic packs? Are they emerald plasma bags donated by aliens from Mars? Or precious tree sap from an endangered swamp oak, to be preserved for future gardens?
Indeed, a generous contribution from Slimer of Ghostbusters fame also comes to mind but no: These are sachets of homemade concentrated lei cha paste.
Whether used by restaurants looking to expedite their kitchen operations or home cooks in a hurry, these convenient packets of “thunder tea” paste are a lifesaver. Made by TJ Lei Cha, a small family business that’s currently in its third generation, these packets are a sign of the times as lei cha becomes increasingly popular.
The recipe for TJ Lei Cha’s signature green paste has been passed down for three generations and its secret guarded closely by the 64-year-old family matriarch, Wong Yoke Khan.
The running of their restaurant and lei cha paste business, however, is shared between Madam Wong’s three daughters — Phan Siew Wai, 39; Phan Siew Mei, 36; and Phan Siew Yie, 32.
Lei cha — a traditional Hakka dish made from ground tea leaves, herbs as well as roasted nuts, seeds and grains — has been making a comeback of late. From hawker stalls in kopitiams to air conditioned restaurants in shopping malls, these bowls of jade green elixir have found favour even with the younger generation seeking healthier options.
But what really goes into a good bowl of lei cha? Siew Yie offers her take: “One of the main ingredients for lei cha paste, besides tea leaves, is jiǔcéngtǎ or ‘the nine-layered pagoda.’ This Chinese basil is also known as ‘the emperor of herbs’ and has the effects of anti-ageing and beautifying, so lei cha is a healthy and nutritious food suitable for all ages.”
While she didn’t divulge the full list of ingredients, Siew Yie shared that their lei cha essentials include the aforementioned jiǔcéngtǎ, tea leaves, roasted peanuts, toasted sesame seeds, mint, cilantro and bitter lotus hearts.
Perhaps a taste test or those with a trained nose can uncover what else goes into TJ Lei Cha’s treasured recipe.
What matters is that their lei cha is homemade from the freshest ingredients. Siew Yie credits her mother and their family heritage for this insistence on following protocol.
“We come from Malim Nawar, a small town in Kampar, Perak,” she shares. “Most of the Chinese residents here have the surname Chai as their ancestors hail from Jiexi County in Guangdong, China, and speak the Hepo dialect of Hakka.”
The Phan sisters grew up eating bowls of lei cha and garlic rice, the way their family has always done. It was a way of life for the Hakka family. More than that, it is a way for them to maintain a tender connection to their past.
Siew Yie explains, “Our grandmother passed away early. The taste of lei cha she cooked is unique so my parents and my uncle came up with a recipe based on what they remembered of our grandmother’s lei cha.”
They opened TJ Lei Cha, a lei cha shop in Ipoh First Garden. Years later, as Madam Wong got older, they decided to close that first shop. But that wasn’t the end of the family’s lei cha journey.
Siew Yie says, “Making lei cha is hard work. So when my mother retired, our older brother who came back from Taiwan took over and opened a new shop at Station 18, Ipoh. Later, my brother’s family decided to move to Taiwan and had to give up running the shop.”
Rather than allow the family business to end there, the three Phan sisters decided to relocate TJ Lei Cha to Kepong at the end of 2019 and run it together. The move was influenced by their desire to keep their family tradition alive but it wasn’t without its challenges.
Siew Yie recalls, “Not long after we moved to Kepong, the pandemic began and the lockdown started. But we thought our decision wasn’t an unlucky move but a brave one. Our parents are getting old and wouldn’t be able to run the business with so many changes. Moving the shop to Kepong, we can adapt together as a family.”
The family that makes and eats lei cha together, stays together, as it were.
One of the adaptations TJ Lei Cha had to make was the same as many other F&B (food and beverage) businesses: with dine-in not allowed during certain phases, they had to switch to takeaway and delivery to survive.
“This is not the first time that we have launched individually packaged lei cha paste. We also sold it when we were in Ipoh,” Siew Yie explains.
There are other challenges. Due to the need to refrigerate lei cha paste, the individually packaged paste can only be arranged for delivery within Klang Valley at the moment though the sisters are exploring options to enable nationwide delivery in the future.
Siew Yie adds, “Also, due to the lengthy procedure for making our lei cha paste — the work of frying peanuts, sesame seeds, and processing raw materials is all by hand! — it is very time consuming and labour intensive. So our production volume is small and can only be sold in limited quantities.”
Therefore scaling up production is a key consideration if TJ Lei Cha wishes to expand. It’s clearly part of the Phan sisters’ ambitions but more so to share the taste of their childhood with more people.
Siew Yie shares, “Our lei cha has a strong and smooth taste. Most importantly, there is no green and astringent taste in the mouth. What surprised us the most was several Hepo customers discovered that the rice we used was ‘garlic rice’ and gave us two thumbs up!”
In addition to their “thunder tea”, TJ Lei Cha also makes two other traditional foods of Hepo Hakka — yong tofu and choi pan. Their yong tofu is stuffed with a paste made from fish, pork, salted fish, dried shrimps and garlic, while their choi pan dumplings come in two flavours — garlic rice and leek rice.
For the Phan sisters, these all make for a very traditional Hepo Hakka meal. A spread that fills them up with nostalgia and joy, a feeling they want to share with their customers.
As Siew Yie elegantly puts it: “Our family opens the door to welcome you, turns on the lights, and cooks a bowl of hot tea with our shared childhood memories… and ‘a taste of home’ for you.”
The taste of home is the taste of family and hard work and, hopefully, a legacy.
TJ Lei Cha
29, Jalan Ambong 3, Kepong Baru, KL
Open daily (except Tue closed) 9am-6pm
Tel: 03-6243 3966