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Tracing the origins of bak kut teh

Star2 logo Star2 12/2/2018 JULIE WONG

In Quanzhou, a port city in Fujian province in south-east China, a dish that closely resembles Klang’s famous bak kut teh can be found at the HaoChengCaiNiuPai restaurant.

The restaurant was founded in 1910, and named one of China’s “Time Honoured Brands” by the Ministry of Commerce in 1999. Niu pai is also recognised as a famous snack by the Fujian Restaurant Cuisine Association. That is to say, niu pai is an icon dish of the city, pretty much like bak kut teh is to the Klang Valley.

The kinship between them may not be easy to prove – or even exist – but they are clearly kindred spirits. And it is this that inspired Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia Master in Ethnic Studies student and teaching assistant at Sunway University Lee Han Ying to explore the social and cultural links between bak kut teh and niu pai. Her findings were presented in a paper at the Food and Society Conference organised by Universiti Kebangsaan’s institute of ethnic studies, Kita, in November 2017.

Translated as “beef steak”, niu pai is beef ribs braised in a broth of soy sauce, ginger, curry powder, star anise, and herbs like angelica – more than 30 types of Chinese herbs are used in the brew, according to Lee. It is usually served with xian fan, a bowl of shallot-flavoured rice garnished with carrot and cabbage.

In Klang, bak kut teh or “pork bone tea” is a herbal bone broth often, but not always, served with a plate of rice slicked with fragrant shallot oil. It has a Hokkien identity even though there are Teochew and Cantonese iterations of the dish around the Klang Valley and elsewhere in Malaysia and Singapore, including southern Thailand.

“The taste of niu pai and xian fan reminds me very much of bak kut teh,” said Lee, a Klangite of Hokkien origin, bak kut teh evidently in her veins, so you don’t doubt her when she said “the main difference between the two dishes is the type of meat used”.

a bowl of food on a plate: bak kut teh © Provided by Star Media Group Berhad bak kut teh

Teck Teh’s traditional bak kut teh is served in little porcelain bowls. While Teck Teh maintains that they were the first bak kut teh stall in Klang, the knowledge to brew herbal bone broths came with the migrant workers from Fujian province.

Lee’s paper on bak kut teh was extracted from her larger research on food and transnationalism of the Hokkien ethnic Chinese in Malaysia and set out to decipher the symbolisms relating niu pai to bak kut teh.

While pitting bak kut teh and niu pai side by side seems to suggest a kinship, Lee was quick to say she’s not suggesting that bak kut teh originates from niu pai, but studying them together throws light on the social and cultural values central to the Chinese – values so hardwired into the psyche that they could survive a sea crossing or two, and quite a few generations across time too. In anthropological parlance, values that are “transnational”.

The study teases out the culinary practices and cultural values of the Chinese – like tea drinking, herbal therapy and pork eating – that survived border crossings and religious barriers to explain the significance of bak kut teh to the Klang Hokkiens and the dynamics of migratory food.

Beardsworth and Keil in Sociology on the Menu: An Invitation to the Study of Food and Society explain this phenomenon: “The role of food and food preparation conventions … are such central features of cultural distinctiveness, and can retain their potency among minority groups for several generations after their physical separation from the parent culture.”

Porcine and bovine diplomacy and economy

While both pork and beef were consumed by the Chinese (the latter a symbol of the Muslim Chinese), throughout the history of China, there were prohibitions on the slaughtering of cattle and pig. During the Han dynasty (206BC), it was taboo to kill bovines or eat their flesh. Oxen was used in agriculture to plough the land and therefore not to be killed for food.

The beef eating culture in China was spread by Arabian, Persian and Turkish Muslims who came to China in the Tang dynasty (618), the golden age of cosmopolitan culture. Later, with the spread of Buddhism in China, the practice of beef eating declined.

a bowl of food on a plate: bak kut teh © Provided by Star Media Group Berhad bak kut teh

Quanzhou’s niu pai is the beef version of bak kut teh, and considered an icon dish of the city associated with the Muslim Chinese community. Photo: Lee Han Ying

During the Ming Dynasty (1519), emperor Zhengde prohibited the raising of pigs, believing the eating of pork would cause infestations, with some scholars believing the prohibition was to improve relations with the Muslim powers of central Asia. During the Qing dynasty (1729), emperor Yongzheng banned cattle slaughtering again to increase the head count of cattle for agriculture.

Beef taboo existed in Chinese society as a subsistence-driven device behaviour, Lee’s research shows. “In China’s long economic history, whenever the country had peace for around 50 to 100 years or was free from natural disasters, China experienced high population growth (Lai, ibid.). When food production could not support the population growth, they give up the land for beef production and use it for agriculture.”

To elaborate on its impact on food ways, she quoted Richard Wilk, provost professor of anthropology at Indiana University: “Cuisines are connected directly to the cultural and physical ecology of food production, to structures of trade and politics that are far beyond the control of cooks and diners.”

Lee said the popularity of pork among the Chinese in the peninsula was not only a cultural preference but also economic. Her study points out that by the 1930s, pig rearing was a significant economic activity in the three west coast states of Perak, Selangor and Negri Sembilan.

“The pig required little care, possessed a quick growth rate and reproduced prolifically. Most importantly, there was high demand for pork commercially. I assume, the answer to why pork was used for bak kut teh was not only cultural; the economic situation played an important role in influencing the pork eating habit of the ethnic Chinese in Malaysia. Pork was easily sourced and cheaper compared to beef.”

a bowl of food: bak kut teh © Provided by Star Media Group Berhad bak kut teh

Dry bak kut teh in claypot is a relatively newer invention and bears the Hokkien trademark with its copious use of dark soy sauce.

The meaning of pig (sorry dog)

The pig has always been an important feature in Chinese history. It is so central to home life that the Chinese word for “home” incorporates the ideogram for “roof” and logogram for “pig” ( jia). “The meaning behind the word formation of “home” is a stable place that has the husbandry of pigs and is able to provide food security (Vividict.com, 2010). Pigs are practical members of the home stable as the omnivores can survive on table scraps, weeds and chaff, and therefore it is an effective household scavenger (Simoons, 1991: 296).

In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), pork has an effect on “moisturising dryness by nourishing yin”. In gastronomy, Chinese food writer Fuchsia Dunlop (cited in The Economist, 2014) considers pork as having “the perfect flavour for Chinese cuisine” and therefore it has been the main ingredient in Chinese cooking and has been an indispensable part of meat eating in Chinese culture.

The facts of bak kut teh

According to Lee, the origin of bak kut teh is murky, but the dish has become an identity of the Chinese in Malaysia, and Klang in particular. The herbs used may differ from one restaurant to the next but generally it is pork braised in a broth of soy sauce, star anise and Chinese herbs such as angelica, processed rehmannia root and liquorice. It is a popular local breakfast, with some restaurants also selling it for lunch and dinner.

a close up of text on a white background: bak kut teh herbs © Provided by Star Media Group Berhad bak kut teh herbs

Today, you can still walk into any Chinese medicine shop and buy a preformulated bak kut teh herbal mix.

What we do know is that mass Chinese migration to Malaya began during the pre-British colonial period in the late 19th century. And the Hokkiens made up the largest sub-ethnic group among the ethnic Chinese arrivals. The Klang Hokkiens can be traced back to southern Fujian province, particularly the cities of Quanzhou, Xiamen and Zhangzhou. Many of them worked at the port as manual workers, carrying heavy loads usually barefoot, and were therefore easily afflicted by ailments such as arthritis and rheumatism.

To prevent these diseases, they made nourishing broths of pig’s head and knuckles braised in medicinal herbs brought over from China, Lee’s research revealed. This produced a dish that was full of collagen and able to improve bone and joint health.

The creation of bak kut teh was based on the concept of diet therapy, said Lee. “The term ‘bak kut’, tells us that the part of the pig used was the bony bits, usually the cheaper cuts.” Lee said both niu pai and bak kut teh use similar types of Chinese herbs that contribute flavour and also therapeutic benefits.

“For the Chinese, the concept of ‘sympathetic magic may be involved in determining the classification of foods as strengthening’. Thus by eating the part of meat close to the bones, it might strengthen bone and joint health.”

Food as diet therapy

In China, the concept of food as medicine goes back 4,000 years. The right food not only nourishes the body but heals as well. While acupuncture and massage may be used to treat an ailment, the first line of treatment is usually the diet. It is not uncommon for the Chinese to treat a minor ailment with a specially prepared meal, especially in the form of herbal infusions or teas. Such functional foods are especially popular in Chinese households where the knowledge of certain foods as medicine has been passed down through the generations.

This may account for such knowledge of diet therapy among the Klang port workers. Every Chinese family would know how to brew a soup of pork bones and other remnant bits and bobs to make a nourishing soup. In well to do families, the meat and vegetables used to boil the soup were not eaten – only the watery soup was valued. That makes bak kut teh a poor man’s tonic.

bak kut teh © Provided by Star Media Group Berhad bak kut teh

Teck Teh’s third-gen bak kut teh seller is the grandson of Lee Boon Teh, the man from whom bak kut teh got its ‘teh’ from. Photo: TT Ho

A field trip

If the knowledge to brew a nourishing bone broth came off the junk from Fujian with the first boatload of Chinese migrant workers in the late 19th century, the first shops only emerged after the war in the mid 1940s.

Teck Teh on Jalan Stesen 1, a stone’s throw from the Klang railway station, lays claim to being the first shop to serve bak kut teh and therefore inventing the dish. According to a story in The Star, the business was started in 1945 at the intersection between the train station and the Klang South police station before moving here in the late 60s. The “teh” in the name, they said, come from their grandfather’s name, Lee Boon Teh.

Two streets away is another fine old bak kut teh shop, Seng Huat, on Jalan Besar.

“Bak kut teh shops first sprung up around this area over 50 years ago. There were also many Chinese herbal medicine shops here; I was a kid then, playing in the alleyways with my friends whose families run the shops,” says PT Tan of HerbalistAsia.com, a new-age herbalist who concocts integrative complementary medicines based on TCM, ayurveda, dietary therapy and modern science.

The medicine shops are all gone now except for one a few doors away from Teck Teh. We ducked under the tattered banner of the Wing On Medical Hall and went in to buy a packet of bak kut teh spices. To this day, you can walk into any Chinese medicine shops to get a bak kut teh recipe.

For just RM2, the lady shopkeeper handed me a small muslin bag filled with her own crushed up formula for bak kut teh: white peppercorns, Sichuan peppercorns, cassia bark, star anise, fennel seeds, liquorice root, yuk chuk (Solomon seal) and niu chit. To this you add heads of whole garlic, soy sauce and salt to taste. And the various pork parts.

a close up of a piece of paper: bak kut teh herbs © Provided by Star Media Group Berhad bak kut teh herbs

Wing On medical hall makes no secret of what goes into their bak kut teh pouch.

“If you go to another shop, you will get a different recipe,” said Tan as we sat down at Teck Teh. The original version of bak kut teh is served in small porcelain bowls, with each bowl holding a different cut of pork. The broth was rich and unctuous, golden brown from the addition of soy sauce, with balanced and comforting flavours and scant taste of Chinese herbs. Teck Teh is one of the shops that have stuck to the original family recipe and offers no side dipping dish of cut chillies and soy sauce – perhaps chillies would interfere with the efficacy of the herbs.

As I enjoyed the bak kut teh – served here with plain boiled rice – I pondered how today, we are eating bak kut teh more for the taste than health therapy. We have lost this aspect of the Chinese food culture when it comes to bak kut teh – due to the extreme meatiness and fat content of the dish, it is no longer considered healthy.

“To boost the healthy effect, the trick is to drink lots of Chinese tea with it,” said Tan. “The tannin in tea demulsify the fat of the pork, separating the oil from the herbal broth, allowing the body to eliminate it. Tea drinking has become a part of the ritual of eating bak kut teh; it was not originally served with tea.”

a bowl of food on a table: bak kut teh © Provided by Star Media Group Berhad bak kut teh

Drinking Chinese tea with bak kut teh has become a ritual; the tea demulsifies the fat so the body can dispose of it.

“When you do it right, bak kut teh is an excellent health tonic,” TCM practitioner Chua told me when I sought him out at his Fuyang acupuncture and acupressure clinic in Kajang. “It’s potent – with medicinal herbs, a little goes a long way – and should not be taken too often,” he said.

The reverse is also true – the wrong combination of herbs or inferior quality herbs can be harmful.

“Unfortunately these days, bak kut teh sellers don’t use the best quality herbs so as to minimise cost and maximise profits,” Chua said. “This affects the efficacy of the tonic.”

A spicy secret

The ingredients that constantly show up in my quick survey of bak kut teh recipes are, surprisingly, the spices star anise, clove, cassia (cinnamon), and fennel seed. While some sinseh feel angelica root (tang kwai) must be one of the ingredients, it often is not there as it is rather pricey.

“Singapore’s version of bak kut teh is rather more peppery and uses pepper root,” said Chua who is originally from Singapore. While some recipes boast more than 10 types of herbs, Chua is of the opinion that six to seven herbs are adequate.

a pile of rocks: bak kut teh © Provided by Star Media Group Berhad bak kut teh

Dried pepper root is used in some versions of bak kut teh.

The large number of dried spices in the mix means that bak kut teh is more correctly a brew of herbs and spices. Many of the spices like peppercorn, fennel seed, clove, star anise and cassia are used in ayurveda and Indian cookery.

It would be a poor sleuth not to ask the question if this had anything to do with the large Indian population around the birthplace of bak kut teh. Could there be an Indian influence in the makeup of bak kut teh? (After all, they invented teh tarik!) I posed the question to Tan, hoping he would not hit me over the head with a claypot.

“TCM and ayurveda use similar herbs and spices,” he said, nodding thoughtfully and did not discount the possibility, adding, “there were almost as many Indians as Chinese living in Klang at the time. Indians made up 30% of the population and Chinese, about 40%.”

Kambing bak kut teh, anyone?

For the record, foie gras bak kut teh has been concocted by a French chef in KL and chickuteh, duckuteh and seafood bak kut teh are already noteworthy variations. Such is the love for bak kut teh.

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