Johor Kaki Travels for Food

Tony Boey johorkaki@gmail 🇸🇬 Dairy of Singapore active senior. Best years of food, travel, lifestyle

Gambier, Pepper, Chu Kang & Mother of Singapore Hawker Food


Teochew bak kut teh is synonymous with Singapore bak kut teh, and probably the earliest invented in Singapore hawker dish. Here is an alternative theory on the creation of Singapore Teochew bak kut teh.


Singapore Teochew bak kut teh is the epitome of simplicity. Singapore Teochew style bak kut teh is simply pork bones (usually ribs nowadays) boiled in water with garlic and pepper - that's it. I've heard it scoffed at more than once or twice by fans of more complex styles of bak kut teh e.g. the herbal people.

The peppery style of bak kut teh is mainstream only in Singapore but where did the dish come from? There are no written records, so we are in the realm of urban legend and conjecture (polite way of saying speculation).

The oft repeated conventional wisdom is, not so long time ago, a coolie hauling sacks of pepper at Singapore River collected peppercorn that fell on the floor and used them to make bak kut teh. And, viola! the iconic Teochew bak kut teh was born. (Image of Boat Quay workers courtesy of National Archives of Singapore.)

I never questioned this assumption, until I realised that pepper was grown in Singapore even before Raffles stepped foot on Singapore River in 1819. There were garlic, pepper and pork in Singapore - all the ingredients needed for Singapore bak kut teh, even before there was Singapore port.

Gambier and pepper plantations were first established in the 1740s in the Riau islands, especially Bintan and Karimum during the reign of Sultan Sulaiman Badrul Alam Shah of the Johor sultanate (1722 - 1760). The Johor sultanate's realm included the Riau islands, Singapore and Johor. During this time, the capital of the Johor sultanate was in the Riau islands.

There was huge demand for gambier extract in China and Europe where it was used for tanning leather. Gambier leaves were boiled to extract its tannin juices. The tannin extract was dried, made into blocks and exported. (Image credit: Wikipedia.) 

Demand for pepper was also enormous. Gambier and pepper were grown together as boiled gambier leaves were ideal for fertilising the soil for pepper shrubs.

To man the gambier and pepper plantations, Teochew and Hokkien Chinese from southern China were brought in as labourers to work under Malays and Bugis.

Later, the Teochew and Hokkien Chinese ran the gambier and pepper plantations under their own leaders under Surat Sungai agreements with the Sultan of Johor sultanate.

The Surat Sungai granted the Chinese head man permission to plant gambier and pepper within a fixed boundary along a river known as a "chu kang" 厝港. The tenure was fixed and renewable.

The Chinese head man was known as a "kang chu" 港主. The plantation was named after the surname of the head man, hence there were "Tan Chu Kang", "Lau Chu Kang", "Chan Chu Kang", etc.

Lim Chu Kang, Yio Chu Kang, and Choa Chua Kang are legacies of the Surat Sungai system in Singapore. (Image credit: Wikipedia)

In return for permission to run the gambier and pepper plantation, the head man pay fees and taxes to the sultan or temenggong on profits from the sale of his produce, use of land, granting of title etc. The head man was given autonomy to run his chu kang and control supply of alcohol, opium, pork etc., within his plantation.

The gambier and pepper plantations expanded from Bintan island into Singapore. When Raffles' arrived in Singapore in 1819, there were some 20 gambier and pepper plantations operating under Surat Sungai terms granted by Temenggong Abdul Rahman. (Image credit: Wikipedia.)

According to Teochew oral accounts, the Teochew ran gambier and pepper plantations were located at Bukit Larangan, which is today's Fort Canning Hill before Raffles' arrival in 1819.

The British evicted the Teochew from Bukit Larangan and relocated them to Sua Kia Deng 山仔顶 (little hill top) which is where Fullerton Hotel is located today.

By the 1840s, Singapore was running out of fertile land for gambier and pepper plantations. In 1851, there were some 800 gambier and pepper plantations all over the island.

In 1844, Temenggong Daeng Ibrahim (reign 1841 - 1862) of Johor sultanate welcomed Teochew planters to move to Johor under Surat Sungai (literally "River Letter") terms. At that time, the capital of the Johor sultanate was in Telok Blangah, Singapore.

The British colonial government abolished the chu kang system in 1917 to curb the power and influence of (secret) societies entrenched in the chu kang system. (Image credit: Wikipedia.)


Everything needed to make Singapore bak kut teh were available at gambier and pepper plantations in the Riau islands, Singapore and Johore since the 1740s. A very long time before the arrival of Raffles in Singapore in 1819.

Chinese have been boiling pork in water to make soup, since time immemorial. How likely is it that a Teochew man from one of the chu kang tossed some peppercorn into a pot of boiling pork soup and thus created Singapore bak kut teh?

That might have happened but there is not record of that Eureka! moment.

Or, did we waited for many more years until a coolie picked up stray peppercorn at Boat Quay to create peppery bak kut teh?

Which theory is more plausible? 🤔

Pork, garlic and pepper were also present in gambier and pepper plantations in the Riaus and Johore. Why wasn't peppery bak kut teh invented there, instead of Singapore?

My response to that is, there is still the human element. Apples, coconuts, durians fall from trees everywhere since time immemorial but it took an Isaac Newton to discover gravity when an apple fell on his head. (Image credit: Norwegian Encyclopedia)

When Raffles established the port of Singapore, the population along Singapore River grew rapidly. At the same time, street hawkers quickly appeared at the river side serving the hungry masses with affordable cooked food.

Teochew bak kut teh was one of the dishes sold and it was sought after for its energy boosting qualities. A few famous names like Ah Orh and Ng Ah Sio around Singapore River popularised the dish. Today, Teochew bak kut teh is ubiquitous in Singapore and most of the famous brands have overseas outposts. Together with chili crab, chicken rice, etc., peppery bak kut teh is one of Singapore cuisine's flag bearers abroad.


Twentieth Century Impressions of British Malaya

Social History of Chinese in Singapore & Malaya


Date: 19 Sep 2020

1 comment:

  1. Gambier plantations in Singapore. Source of Article: Singapore Infopedia
    ""When the British arrived in Singapore in 1819, there were about 20 gambier plantations in Singapore, run by the Chinese and Malays. Most of the produce was exported to China. In 1836, a group of enthusiasts, mainly Europeans, started to experiment with growing crops in Singapore. The only two crops found to be viable as plantation crops were gambier and pepper.[4] These were always grown together, as gambier waste provided an essential fertiliser for pepper plants. Similarly, boiled gambier leaves also were also used as fertiliser for pepper.[5]

    There was much demand for Singapore's gambier in the British dyeing and tanning industry in the 1830s. Increased gambier prices boosted the opening of new plantations by the Chinese, who occupied and cleared the land, especially in the northern and western regions of Singapore.[6] By the late 1840s, there were 600 gambier and pepper plantations under cultivation, employing some 6,000 Chinese labourers.[7]

    king of gambier
    Gambier and pepper plantations could be found in the Nee Soon area along the Seletar River in the mid-19th century. The "king of gambier", Seah U Chin, or Seah Eu Chin, had huge plantations in Upper Thomson Road, Sembawang and Mandai. He also owned a well-known gambier trading house along the Singapore River.[8] Seah was deemed the first person to have cultivated gambier and pepper on a large scale in Singapore.[9]

    Unfortunately, within 15 years, the soil in the gambier plantations became infertile; it could no longer sustain further growth of the gambier plants. Consequently, from the late 1840s onwards, the plantations were moved to other Malayan states, mainly to Johor; more were moved in the 1860s.10 In 1883, there were reportedly 4,000 gambier-producing factories in Johor.[11] Around 1905, gambier and pepper lost favour among the Chinese planters, who turned to growing pineapple and cultivating rubber due to the increasingly high demand for these crops.[12] .""


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