Decidedly fragrant and undeniably gratifying especially when savoured on a cold rainy day, bak kut teh (which literally means “meat bone tea” in the Hokkien dialect) has been a signature local dish in Singapore and Malaysia since, well, forever. Its actual origins may be murky but it is believed that bak kut teh was brought over by early Chinese immigrants from China’s Fujian province who largely settled in both countries.

Despite its name, the dish does not actually contain tea; it generally refers to a tea-drinking ritual which has become an integral part of eating bak kut teh (it was not originally served with tea). The tannin in strong Chinese oolong tea purportedly demulsifies the copious amount of pork fat by separating the oil from the herbal broth so that the body can eliminate it. Another explanation you might hear is that the “teh” is actually the name of the person who created the dish in Klang in the 1940s (more on that later).

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For the uninformed, bak kut teh is a popular pork rib dish cooked gently in a complex broth of herbs and spices for hours and is often – but not always – served with a bowl of shallot-flavoured rice.

Although there are Teochew and Cantonese interpretations of the dish found all over Malaysia, Singapore and certain parts of southern Thailand, bak kut teh’s Hokkien roots seem to have the strongest, most established presence.

The key characteristics of the different forms of bak kut teh:

Hokkien-style – A darker, more fragrant soup thanks to a combination of various herbs and spices plus light and dark soy sauces.

Cantonese-style – Medicinal herbs are added to create an herby, stronger-flavoured broth.

Teochew-style – Pork ribs and bones are typically boiled in garlic and pepper, hence the broth is lighter in colour and it tastes more peppery than the other styles. Singaporeans dial up the pepperiness with pepper root.

While the herbs used may differ from one restaurant to the next, the consensus is that the bak kut teh’s broth is a cocktail of soy sauce, star anise and a myriad of Chinese herbs such as angelica root, licorice root and processed rehmannia root. Due to its hefty cost, angelica root (more commonly referred to as dong gwai) is often excluded from the recipe even though some traditional Chinese herbalists feel that it is compulsory to have angelica as one of the ingredients to make a good bak kut teh brew.

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The Lion City’s side of the story

In Singapore, the most crowd-pleasing variant is undoubtedly the Teochew-style bak kut teh, said to have developed in the Clarke Quay and River Valley areas after the second world war.

It gained popularity as the crowd’s go-to street fare only in the 1960s when humble bak kut teh pushcarts became restaurant chains as business flourished, according to the book Singapore Hawker Classics Unveiled: Decoding 25 Favourite Dishes by Temasek Polytechnic.

However, some argue that the dish’s existence in Singapore could predate the 20th century, as both Hokkien- and Teochew-style bak kut teh were rumoured to have been spotted in the Clarke Quay area as well as on Hokien Street in the 1920s.

Song fa bak kut teh, Singapore #bakkutteh #singapore #singaporefood #songfabakkutteh

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Third-generation tea merchant Kenry Peh of Pek Sin Choon Tea Merchants recounts the stories his grandfather Pek Kim Aw shared with him when he spoke to Singaporean food blogger Dr Leslie Tay. According to Peh, the Chinese communities in the areas were already serving up bak kut teh when his grandfather migrated to Singapore in the 1920s.

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Since Clarke Quay was established by the British in the mid-19th century, Tay posits that bak kut teh originated from the island between 1860 and 1920, several decades ahead of its arrival in Malaysia’s Port Swettenham (now Port Klang).

The Malaysian version of the tale

In Malaysia, Klang is often credited as the birthplace of bak kut teh, where it was introduced by the ethnic Chinese arrivals who were predominantly Hokkiens during the pre-British colonial period in the late 19th century. Many of them worked at the port as manual workers and were highly vulnerable to arthritis and rheumatism as they carried heavy loads often barefoot. To replenish their energy and prevent such ailments, they made a nourishing bone broth by boiling pig’s head and knuckles – said to be rich in collagen and therefore believed to improve bone and joint health – with an assortment of medicinal herbs and spices.  

While this nourishing soup-making knowledge existed before the 20th century, the first bak kut teh shops only emerged after the war in the mid-1940s. Just a stone’s throw away from the Klang railway station, Teck Teh claims it is the first shop ever to serve bak kut teh. According to a profile by The Star, the business started in 1945 before relocating to its current location in the late 1960s. It is said that the “teh” in the dish name actually came from the founder’s name, Lee Boon Teh.

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In a study done by University Kebangsaan Malaysia Master in Ethnic Studies student and teaching assistant at Sunway University Lee Han Ying, she posits that bak kut teh and niu pai, an iconic dish from China, are kindred spirits in terms of taste.

Discovered at a restaurant in Quanzhou, a port city in Fujian province in southeast China, niu pai (beef steak) is beef ribs braised in a broth of soy sauce, ginger, curry powder and star anise with more than 30 types of Chinese herbs. Usually served with a bowl of rice slicked with fragrant shallot oil and garnished with carrot and cabbage, niu pai is recognised as a crowd-favourite snack by the Fujian Restaurant Cuisine Association. It is also worth mentioning that the restaurant – founded in 1910 – is named one of China’s “Time Honoured Brands” by the Ministry of Commerce in 1999.  

According to Lee – a Klangite of Hokkien descent, so she has known bak kut teh her entire life – the taste of niu pai reminds her of bak kut teh; she says that the only difference between the two dishes is the type of meat used.

Rather than suggesting that bak kut teh originated from niu pai, Lee puts both dishes side by side to suggest a level of kinship, and explores the transnational culinary practices and cultural values of the Chinese in an attempt to decipher the murky origins of bak kut teh and its significance to the Hokkien community in Klang. Such is the love Hokkiens have for bak kut teh.

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In recent years, modern variations of the bak kut teh have started to emerge in this foodie country, one being dry bak kut teh, a new reiteration typically found in Klang Valley in which the broth is reduced to a thicker gravy and has the addition of dried chillies, lady’s fingers and dried dates. There’s also the halal versions such as chickuteh, duckuteh and seafood bak kut teh. Another worth noting is the foie gras bak kut teh which was concocted by a French chef in Kuala Lumpur.

Seems like Malaysia has this one in the bag.

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