Johor Kaki Travels for Food

johorkaki@gmail celebrates retirement in Singapore, travels to Johor Malaysia & worldwide for food

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Origins of Bak Kut Teh. Move over Malaysia and Singapore. Korea Invented BKT



Sounds absurd doesn't it?

Perhaps, perhaps not.

Once in a while, we will hear the old argument between some Singaporeans and Malaysians about who invented bak kut teh 肉骨茶. Malaysians and Singaporeans love their bak kut teh, and so it is natural for them to be protective about it.


On the other hand, Singaporeans, KLites and Penangites also love their Hokkien mee but there has never been any argument about who invented Hokkien mee.

Why leh?

Let me guess.

Perhaps, everyone recognises that even though they are all called Hokkien mee, they are actually completely different dishes. So, the question of who invented Hokkien mee does not arise.

Then, what about bak kut teh?

Public Domain Photo

Singapore and Malaysian bak kut teh have similar roots, in that both are invented by port workers. Singapore BKT in Keppel Harbour and Malaysian BKT at Port Swettenham (now Port Klang).

But, the similarity ends there.


Singapore bak kut teh is made by boiling pork ribs in water with peppercorn, salt and garlic - ingredients readily available around Singapore's port area. Singapore BKT is a Teochew dish of pork ribs served in a peppery soup.

As Singapore bak kut teh is often paired with Chinese black tea, the word teh or tea is part of the name of the Singapore dish.


Like Singapore bak kut teh, Malaysian bak kut teh, created in Port Klang, is also a port workers' dish.

But, it is really a different type of dish. The most popular cuts of Klang bak kut teh are from the pig's leg, in particular the ankle joint 脚弯 (not ribs).

Instead of boiling in water as a soup like in the case of Singapore BKT, Klang bak kut teh is cooked in a soya sauce based stock with Chinese medicinal herbs. It is more a Hokkien braised dish intended as a herbal tonic for energy and to fortify the health of port workers.


Klang bak kut teh is often served with just ⅓ level of stock in the bowl, and there are strictly no top ups. On the other hand, Singapore bak kut teh shops offer constant soup top ups almost like topping up hot water.


On the subject of tea, where did the "teh" in Klang bak kut teh come from?

Tea has nothing to do with it.

Well, according to urban legend in Malaysia, the creator of bak kut teh in Klang is Mr. Lee Boon Teh. The word "teh" in Klang bak kut teh refers to Mr. Lee Boon Teh.

Lee Boon Teh's old sign board "Teck Teh" is still there in Klang.

"Teh" is not the point.

The point is, Singapore bak kut teh and Klang bak kut teh are two completely different, unrelated dishes - just as Penang, Singapore and KL Hokkien mee are different.

Seen from this light, then arguments about who invented bak kut teh are really moot.

Then, where do the Koreans come in?


You see, the Koreans also have a pork bone dish popularised by port workers. Port workers of Incheon Port make a pork bone dish by boiling pig's spine in a spicy stock.

The South Koreans are so economically and technologically advanced today, it's easy to overlook that they were among the world's poorest countries until recently. No pork ribs or pig leg luxury for Incheon Port workers - they have to resort to bones from pig's spine.

Of course, the Koreans never refer to their pork bone dish as bak kut teh - it is known as gamjatang (or potato soup. That's the discussion for another day 😂 ).


So, if we agree that Klang, Singapore and Korean "bak kut teh" are different dishes altogether, then the argument about who invented BKT does not arise, just like arguments about who among Penang, KL and Singapore created Hokkien mee do not arise.

But, if we still want to insist that either Singapore or Malaysia invented bak kut teh, then I say the honour rightfully belongs to Korea (as gamjatang long predates Klang and Singapore bak kut teh).

So, just eat lah! 😄

Argue for what?!

(Of course, there are many variations of Malaysia, Singapore and Korean "bak kut teh" but we are discussing the dish's origins here.)


OK... you may start to throw stones now 😂

Date: 19 Sep 2017

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  1. Vietnam also has its own version of VietKuTeh . It comes in the form of a bowl of Bun Bo Hue( Bun-Rice Noodles, Bo - Beef, Hue City ) or commonly describe as Imperial Beef Noodles. Bun Bo Hue comes with beef but for some reason(not in Malaysia I suppose) they will also throw in a chunk of Pig's Trotters into the soup. Don't ask me why this mish mash of beef & pork in the same bowl. There you have it the nearest Vietnam cuisine comes close to our beloved Bakuteh :-) One can probably get this concoction at JB's Taman Sentosa where Vietnamese Restaurants abound

  2. Grandfather story on the origin of Teh in BKT.

    Opium was commonly used by harbour coolies to give them the extra "strength", but it comes with side effect of dry mouth and dehydration.

    TCM practitioners of old created herbal remedies, generically called herbal tea 涼茶, to cure this opium "hangover".

    Enterprising forebear of ours had meat added later to the herbal concoction to create a wholesome meal but the "teh" remains with the "bak kut".

    Hence the origin of Klang BKT in a nut shell.


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