Breakfast for Malaysian dockers is just what the doctor ordered
Bak kut teh comes from the Hokkien dialect and simply means 'meat bone tea'. It's an unappetising moniker for one of Malaysia and Singapore's most iconic dishes.
It's a soup made with medicinal herbs, spices, soy sauce and pork, and is usually served with pork ribs or offal.
It is generally believed that it started as a meat-free, breakfast for the many dockers who worked in the area of Klang, once Malaysia's capital and an important port in the 19th century because of the extensive tin mining in the area as well as general overseas trade.
Many of the labourers hailed from China's Fujian province and were poorly paid. They picked up herbs and spices that fell out of the cargo that they were transporting, and boiled them as teas.
The workers were following traditional Chinese medicine beliefs that such infusions would keep them strong. They would drink their tea alongside a bowl of rice, or sometimes pour the tea over the rice for a quick meal.
Turning this tea into a soup with meat is said to be something that evolved after the second world war. As the story goes, before the war, there were a number of street hawkers in Klang who sold dishes from Fujian, such as the slow-cooked pork ribs known as bak kut (Hokkien for 'meat bone'), meaning ribs and rice with preserved vegetables. After the war, a man named Lee Boon Teh set up his own business selling similar foods.
He learned from the labourers, or perhaps other hawkers nearby, about the health benefits of dried herbs and spices, so he began to add those to the broth in which he cooked his pork ribs. The dish became extremely popular, and his stall became known as Teh's bak kut stall. As his name and the word for tea are both pronounced 'teh', and given the recipe's inspiration by the labourers' tea, Lee changed the sign on his cart to say 'bak kut teh', and the name stuck. Lee's children and grandchildren still operate bak kut teh restaurants all around Klang, now a destination for the dish.