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History of Singapore Bak Kut Teh. From Coolie Tea to a President's Treat

History-Singapore-Bak-Kut-Teh
Old Tiong Bahru Bak Kut Teh
Bak kut teh together with Hainanese chicken rice is one of the iconic dishes of Singapore. How did the unique Singapore style of pork bone soup come about? How did it become world famous?

Making soup with pork bones is not unique to Singapore, indeed it is ubiquitous throughout China since time immemorial. Everywhere there are Chinese communities, there is some form of pork bone soup. But, the Singapore style of bak kut teh - the most famous of all pork bone soup in the world - is a fairly recent creation.


Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
The demand for manpower by the flourishing British free port of Singapore coincided with wars and famine in China, bringing largest waves of Chinese immigrants from the 1850s to 1920s. Mostly from the southern China provinces of Guangdong and Fujian, many worked as coolies at the thriving port.

Singapore hawkers in the 1890s. Image credit: National Archives Singapore
For the poor coolies, there was little to eat. No pork (meat) soup but soup made of garlic cloves, soy sauce and pork bones with scraps of meat on special days, maybe.

Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
In the early 1900s, some hawkers began selling pork bone soup at Ellenborough Market known also the "New Market" 新巴刹 or "Teochew Market" 潮州巴刹. New Market because there was an Old Market or Lau Pat Sat at Teluk Ayer. Teochew Market because it was located in the Teochew enclave at the mouth of Singapore River. 

This was the ideal place for pork related businesses as the abattoir was also located near here. Pork bones with scraps of meat could be had for cheap. (Not to be mistaken for pork ribs which is synonymous with bak kut teh of today.) The pork bone soup was popular with coolies as it was desired as a kind of essential "energy tonic" for their back breaking work in Singapore's blistering tropical heat. Bone marrow was also believed to fortify the immune system. The dish was called Coolie Tea 苦力茶.

Meat bone soup was never really a coolie's dish. Only towkay or bosses could afford meat bone soup regularly, even if it was only scraps of meat on bone.

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As Coolie Tea, the meat bone was just cooked with garlic cloves and dark soy sauce.

With growing affluence, two streams of bak kut teh emerged in Singapore.

The Hokkien folks added Chinese herbs like dang gui and liquorice, and spices such as cinnamon and star anise to the garlic and soy sauce.


Nankin Street in 1981. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
Ong Say Bak Kut Teh 李旺世肉骨茶 founded in the 1920s is the oldest known bak kut teh brand in Singapore. Their popular shop at Nankin Street was packed to the rafters and customers spilled out onto the five foot way during their heydays. Unfortunately, it closed in 1989 when the shops here were demolished to make way for China Square.

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One of Ong Say's workers Mdm Teo opened Nankin Street Bak Kut Teh 南京街肉骨茶 using Ong Say's recipes with the family's blessings.

It's the Hokkien style. The soup is dark with lots of black soy sauce and lots of Chinese medicinal herbs. If you are looking for pioneer Singapore bak kut teh that tastes savoury herbal, it is here at Maxwell Food Centre stall #01-89.

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On the other hand, in addition to the garlic cloves, Teochews added Sarawak white pepper and cut back on the black soy sauce. The famous premium white pepper of Sarawak was shipped around the world through Singapore, so there was plenty of it at the port.

Over the years in Singapore, this peppery tasting bak kut teh grew more mainstream, edging out the savoury herbal Hokkien version which became more niche.

It's a different story across the Causeway in Johor Bahru. It's the savoury herbal taste profile exemplified by Bak Cheng bak kut teh that has a stronger foothold.

It is interesting that in Singapore where the Hokkien community is the majority clan, it is "Teochew bak kut teh" that is most popular.


Yet, in Johor Bahru which is known as "Little Swatow" as the Teochews are in the majority, it is the "Hokkien bak kut teh" that is preferred.


Something to explore further.

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Song Fa Bak Kut Teh
From literally bone with scraps of meat, premium cuts like meaty loin ribs become the norm.


Some time along the way as more gentrified meat bone tea got more established, the name Coolie Tea 苦力茶 faded away leaving only the name bak kut teh 肉骨茶.



In Singapore, Chinese tea and bak kut teh always go hand in hand. When bak kut teh was humble Coolie Tea, a cheap Chinese tea was provided free-of-charge to go with the meat bone soup.


As bak kut teh graduated to the towkay's choice by the 1920s, Pek Sin Choon Tea Merchants pioneered pairing more premium teas with meat bone soup (with better cuts like pork ribs). Eating bak kut teh and sipping tea became a favourite towkay pastime, in a way like businessmen meeting up over a round of golf today.


Of course, as Singapore became more prosperous, most people can enjoy bak kut teh with Chinese tea at any time.


Clark Quay in the 1970s. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
In 1968, Ellenborough Market was destroyed by fire and the hawkers moved slightly upriver to the River Valley area around Clarke Quay and the foot of Fort Canning 王家山.

黄亚细 Ng Ah Sio and his father 黄美松 Ng Mui Song who started selling bak kut teh in 1955 moved here along with other bak kut teh hawkers.


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Ng Ah Sio bak kut teh in 2019
In 1977, 黄亚细 Ng Ah Sio moved his shop to New World Amusement Park (Kitchener Road) and then in 1988, to Rangoon Road.


Ng Ah Sio was doing well enough, minding his own business here until a twist of fate in 2006 changed everything.


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Ng Ah Sio bak kut teh in 2019
One day, he received a telephone call at the shop for a reservation for the coming Monday. Ng Ah Sio informed the unidentified caller from Ministry of Foreign Affairs that Monday was his off day. The caller hung up and that was that. (Most bak kut teh shops in Singapore are off on Monday as there is no fresh pork in the market because the abattoir closes on Sunday.)

Before he knew what happened, Hong Kong newspaper headlines were screaming blue murder that Ng Ah Sio snubbed the Hong Kong Chef Executive Donald Tsang 😱 Obviously, the sensational story caused a furore which ripples tremors were felt all the way back in Singapore.

Ng Ah Sio's business boomed due to the unintended fame or notoriety. Many people were curious to taste what was this bak kut teh that turned away Hong Kong's Chief Executive.

This incident catapulted Ng Ah Sio bak kut teh, and Singapore bak kut teh in general onto the world stage. (Reminds me of a public relations adage that there is no bad publicity, all publicity is good publicity. I don't quite agree though.... .)

Ng Ah Sio's fans included many dignitaries such as Taiwan's former President Ma Ying Jeou (hence the title Coolie Tea to a President's Treat).


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Founder Bak Kut Teh in Taipei

Now, many Singapore bak kut teh restaurants have outposts around the world. For example, all the Big Three - Founder, Ng Ah Sio and Song Fa - are in Taipei.



Ms Gwee Pek Hua worked for Ng Mui Song at his River Valley shop in the 1960s. She later started her own shop Ya Hua Bak Kut Teh which is one of Singapore's top brands today.

Lau Ah Tee worked for his uncle Ng Mui Song in the 1960s. Lau Ah Tee's shop in Boon Keng is still one of the best bak kut teh in Singapore.


Chua Chwee Huat was a pig farmer before he founded Founder Bak Kut Teh in the 1970s. He developed his own recipe independently and Founder is now one of Singapore's Big Three bak kut teh brands.


Song Fa is another top bak kut teh brand in Singapore. It was a push cart stall along Johore Road founded by Yeo Eng Song in 1969. 

References:

The Untold History of 黄美松
Pek Sin Choon Tea Merchants



 

 

Date: 17 May 2020

7 comments:

  1. Dear Tony,
    Thanks for sharing your S'pore BKT tales.

    After reading your article which I find very interesting and revealing I could not resist sharing some history and fact from another Bak Kut Teh heartland, Klang.
    Part 1
    - The Teh 茶 in Bak Kut Teh
    As you had described drinking Chinese tea has been a constant companion to consumption of BKT, both in S’pore and Klang. However, the word “Teh” 茶 in Bak Kut Teh 肉骨茶 did not come from this association, at least not in Klang.

    The origin of Bak Kut Teh (BKT) here goes back to the opium smokers of the 1850s, particularly by coolies who consume them as energy booster to assist their back breaking labour. They could afford only the cheapest grade which has side effects of dry throat and mouth, among others. Local TCM practitioners here had than developed and formulated various type of herbal tonic, locally known as herbal tea, to remedial this. Such herbal drinks were prepared and sold by vendor from baskets hanging off shoulder pole at the dockside along the bank of Klang River. This was the age before the larger harbour at Port Klang came about.

    Similar to S’pore “Coolie Tea” history, the opening of abattoir upstream of Klang River made available bone/meat scrap, catering to the demand for cheap and strength building tonic. These too were cooked with herbs to address health and heat element. [Sidebar: Parts and waste discarded from the abattoir also attract the famous Klang Rivers buayas (crocodiles)]

    Eventually, all three elements (Opium cure tonic, bone/meat scrap and herbal supplement) were combined into a nutritional meal by a TCM hall owner. In the early days, cooked rice and soupy BKT were served and consumed from a single bowl with a pair of chopstick, while squatting at the pier front. That is the reason why Klang’s BKT display a stronger and complex herbal element in our offering.

    The rest are history as one can put it, with introduction of better cut of pork, and moving from pier side into shop, as the society becomes more affluent.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you Crawler for your wonderful insights. Can you recommend me some books or articles on this please. Appreciate much.

      Delete
    2. Dear Tony.
      Unfortunately, references, scholarly research and research thesis into Klang’s BKT history is sorely lacking. The details provided are oral history from the alders.

      Delete
  2. Part 2
    - Claims to Fame
    Some party has claimed the term Teh in Klang’s BKT is due to the surname of the original inventor. Unfortunately, this is a fallacy propagated for cheap marketing. The said party’s family is the third to start BKT business in Klang, or maybe the forth.

    The first family of Klang BKT has ceased their operation due to lack of interest among the younger generation to carry on. The patriarch was originally a TCM hall owner and practitioner who formulated the herbal concoction for opium smoking side effect, combined with health and “heatiness” supplement. With the creation of this All-in-One herbal formula he took upon the creation of a robust meal for the lower rung of the society. The TCM hall near Klang Rail Station was operated as their family main business, with BKT as a sideline.

    - Different Cut
    Another common BKT business practice in Klang is “head to hoof” cooking. Whole hog are delivered slaughtered, cleaned and hair scrapped from the abattoir on daily basic, except Monday when the abattoir close for cleaning, disinfection and rest. Better BKT stall operator will then dissect the hog into different parts and cook them in separate pots. The herbal formula and flavouring condiments are then adjusted to suit the flavour, texture and tenderness/toughness of that particular cut of meat.

    This resulted in the soup flavour and texture from a bowl of pork belly三層肉 tasting differently from a mouthful from another bowl of pork hock豬蹄肉, so on and forth. The soup are infused with the specific but delicate flavour of that cut of meat, and the herbal formula /condiment used to bring out the best, and suppress the undesired, flavour of that particular cut of meat.

    Various BKT store here has been graded and gain fame base on the taste they achieved with one specific cut of meat by BKT expert. There will never ever be a consensus among these expert on which stall has the best flavour for each cut of meat, as the saying goes by “one man's meat is another man's poison”. There are older generation of connoisseurs that still go to different stall for one specific cut of meat.

    - Claypot Buffet
    Another BKT invention from Klang, known as the Claypot, is for disposing of less popular cuts of meat to unsuspecting visitors. There are some cuts of pork, such as the rib, that turn out poorly in this method of cooking, hence have lower demand. The mixing of various cheaper cut of meats disguised in a common pot, combined with vegetable, tofu, mushroom and whatnot that camouflage the delicate meat flavour, allow for profitable disposal of unpopular cuts.


    That’s my 2 cents work of history for your enjoyment and thank you for allowing me to pass some time fruitfully during this MCO/CB or ours. As the details and information in this write-up are common knowledge, some call it old folk tales or grandmother/grandfather story, I claim no rights to it.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Part 3
    - Claypot Buffet
    Another BKT invention from Klang, known as the Claypot, is for disposing of less popular cuts of meat to unsuspecting visitors. There are some cuts of pork, such as the rib, that turn out poorly in this method of cooking, hence have lower demand. The mixing of various cheaper cut of meats disguised in a common pot, combined with vegetable, tofu, mushroom and whatnot that camouflage the delicate meat flavour, allow for profitable disposal of unpopular cuts.


    That’s my 2 cents work of history for your enjoyment and thank you for allowing me to pass some time fruitfully during this MCO/CB or ours. As the details and information in this write-up are common knowledge, some call it old folk tales or grandmother/grandfather story, I claim no rights to it.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Ong Say BKT was originally at the now defunct Cheang Hong Lim Street (near Peking/Nanking Street). Ong Say was the boss of the stall. The stall was a BKT stall in the morning and cze char stall at night. Ong Say’s fried Hokkien noodle (dark sauce version) was very famous. It later moved to Nankin Street and was helmed by his assistant Ah Wei (he was a short man). Mdm Teo who worked for the 2 bosses eventually took over the stall at Maxwell Road. It is probably the best Hokkien style BKT although there are a couple of stalls at Hong Lim Complex with similar taste. My siblings and I have been eating from the original stall since the late 50s and still patronise the stall at Maxwell to this day.

    ReplyDelete

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