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What Does the "Teh" in Bak Kut Teh Mean?

History of Bak Kut Teh
Most of us assume that the teh 茶 in bak kut teh refers to the custom of drinking tea during a bak kut teh 肉骨 meal. Some of us may be surprised that this popular assumption is challenged by two other theories.

Kenry Peh, fourth generation owner of Pek Sin Choon Tea Merchants said that when his grandfather came to Singapore in the 1920s, people were already drinking Chinese tea with their bak kut teh 肉骨茶. The tea was at that time the average quality type and provided free of charge. Kenry's grandfather pioneered pairing premium tea appreciation with eating bak kut teh.

So, teh 茶 refers to the tea that accompanies our meal of bak kut 肉骨.

There are at least two other theories.

For the second theory, we have to go to Klang, in Malaysia. Klang is seen as the bak kut teh capital of Malaysia and there are more than a thousand bak kut teh shops and stalls in the relatively small port city (of half a million population). People from Kuala Lumpur, Petaling Jaya, and other near and not so near cities flock to Klang for bak kut teh.

It is said that the teh in bak kut teh refers to the teh in the name of the creator of bak kut teh, Mr. Lee Boon Teh.

Screengrab from The Star report
According to this theory, Mr. Lee Boon Teh came to Klang from China's Fujian province in 1945. He created a herbal meat bone soup which became very popular. As this bak kut dish was created by Mr. Lee Boon Teh, it became known as bak kut teh.

This theory was first published by The Star newspaper in Malaysia in 2016 and is widely circulated by viral copy-and-paste websites (so it is influential).

Teck Teh Bak Kut Teh in Klang, Malaysia
Mr. Lee Boon Teh's bak kut teh shop known as Teck Teh is still in operation today. It is now run by his great grandson and great great grandson.

Chinese coolies in Singapore in 1925. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
The third possibility is bak kut teh was first conceived as a herbal tonic i.e. as a form of liang teh 凉茶, hence the name bak kut teh. In this theory, the herbal tonic dish itself is known as bak kut teh, without Chinese tea pairing. So, the teh in bak kut teh is the liang teh itself. 

In this theory, bak kut teh was created as a health fortifying and energy boosting for coolies from China. Its exact origin is unclear but it could be as early as the 1850s. If you subscribe to this theory, the teh in bak kut teh was referring to the whole dish and not to the paired tea (teh) on the side (which came about later).

What do you think?

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Poll result will be published here on 1 July 2020.

As at 1 July 2020, a slight majority of respondents believe that "teh" refers to the dish bak kut teh as an herbal tonic i.e. a form of "liang teh". An almost equal majority feels that the "teh" in bak kut teh is the Chinese tea which is customarily paired with the meat bone soup. A small minority thought "teh" came from the name of Lee Boon Teh.

If you have insights, please share with us in the comments.


History of Singapore bak kut teh

History of Klang bak kut teh

Recreating the original coolie's bak kut teh

Date: 14 Jun 2020

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