Tired of healthy hipster grain bowls? Yearning for more comforting local flavours? Then lei cha fan, or thunder tea rice gives you the best of both worlds. This ancient Hakka invention of veggie-garnished grains in an astringent pour-over soup is certainly healthy, comforting and local, even with additional toppings of tofu and ikan billis. However because of its bitter herbal taste, traditional lei cha fan isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Literally. Enter a crowd-pleasing version that’s been given a surprising vegan twist.
I first discovered this humble Bukit Timah stall during Singapore’s circuit breaker, when I was online hunting for affordable food delivery. What arrived (delivered personally by stall owner Wayne Tan) far exceeded my expectations. His vegan thunder tea rice may be meat, dairy and garlic free, but bland and boring it was not. Impressed by how rich, aromatic and packed with protein the dish was, I plotted my visit to Living Wholesome Vegetarian at Bukit Timah Market & Food Centre when restrictions were lifted.
There, I met the Wayne again, along with his girlfriend Agatha Teo, as they were busy serving the last of their lunchtime customers. Interestingly, as the owner of a vegan thunder tea rice stall, Wayne isn’t vegan nor Hakka himself. Rather, it was a business opportunity he took up when the previous owner decided to emigrate. Previously from the IT industry, Wayne was already thinking of swopping the late nights and heavy entertaining for a more regular, balanced lifestyle when Living Wholesome opportunely beckoned.
It seemed almost like kismet, so with zero F&B experience, Wayne took the plunge. He spent a month learning the ropes from the previous owner and then he found himself on his own. All the previous regular customers had left, business was slow and he was a one-man-operation slogging for survival. But Wayne stayed the course, welcoming feedback from customers and taking on pointers from mentors in the industry. Seven years later, he’s grateful. He learnt a lot from the tough times and not just about F&B. He actually found his passion through this experience. But that’s not all he found! His lovely girlfriend Agatha has been helping him for the past year and shares his passion for serving healthy food.
So what exactly is so special about their signature vegan thunder tea rice? Basically Wayne threw everything he learnt out the window, took the recipe and made it his own to save on labour, but not sacrifice taste. He thought hard about how to give a niche dish like that mass appeal, but yet keep it vegan to boot. His solution? Nuts. Lots and lots of nuts for fragrance and flavour…
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Peanuts and sesame seeds are a given in most thunder tea rice recipes, but Wayne decided to really bump up the variety by adding cashews, walnuts, almonds, pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds. No oil is added, just herbs like mint, basil, coriander, mugwort and ku li xin, then everything is blended into a concentrated paste. Many customers enjoy it served thick like that, but traditionally, the sauce is diluted with hot water to create the requisite green soup.
Either ways, it’s lush and creamy, intensely fragrant and undeniably delicious. Delivering maximum nutty flavour and a wonderful balance between savoury, sweet, and mildly bitter notes, thanks to the clever combination of the aromatic herbs. All the sharp edges have been knocked off, leaving a rounded, crowd-pleasing flavour profile that pairs beautifully with the organice brown rice and vegetables.
$6.30 gets you a regular rice set with soup on the side. It’s an attractively-arranged bowl full of vibrant colours. They only serve veggies that are in season, so I got finely chopped orange carrot, string beans, cabbage and cai xin in a varying shades of green. Then there’s whole brown beans, golden-fried firm tofu and bronzy preserved radish or chye poh. A scattered topping of whole sesame seeds and peanuts completed the picture perfect display, enough to rival any hipster grain bowl. The veggies were perfectly seasoned and cooked just right to retain a juicy crunch. In contrast, the brown beans were creamy-soft and the cubes of tofu were bouncy and crisp-edged.
Pour the bright green soup all over, mix and be prepared to get blown away! The garnish of sesame seeds and and peanuts amplified the gorgeous nuttiness of the soup. Ditto the toasty fragrance of the organic brown rice, flavoured with a little sesame oil. The bits of sweet Thai chye poh emanated sharp little bursts of umami, compounding the exciting play of flavours and textures.
Honestly, what more could you want in a rice bowl? It’s super tasty, full of fresh vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds and herbs that pack a mighty punch of healthy fats, protein, fibre, vitamins and minerals. And if you’re a noodle lover, you can even substitute the rice for bee hoon braised in mouth-watering mushroom sauce – so good!
I’d say Wayne’s non-traditional thunder tea creations are quite a unique take on a Hakka classic, and totally worth a try. Even better, they’re committed committed to feeding the needy on the first Monday of every month, preparing sixty free meals for anyone to takeaway from his stall, no questions asked. Making food that does good, tastes good and is good for you? This is one stall that lives up to its name!
Living Wholesome Vegetarian Food 生活天然健康素食
Bukit Timah Market & Food Centre, 51 Upper Bukit Timah Rd, #02-188, Singapore 588172.
Open Tuesdays to Sundays from 10.30am to 2pm & 5.30pm to 7pm. Closed on Mondays.
For deliveries, text + 65 84266033.