Cover Photo: Samy & Min Bak Kut Teh

What you need to know about one Malaysian researcher's four-year study on the origins of Klang bak kut teh

About researcher Lee Han Ying: 

"I'm a third generation Chinese Malaysian whose grandfather hails from Yongchun County in the Fujian province, and I teach culinary arts-related subjects at the School of Hospitality and Service Management at Sunway University. I also recently graduated in my part-time studies (Master of Ethnic Studies) at the National University of Malaysia (UKM). My research was fuelled by self-interest and spurred by one question: 'Who am I, as a Chinese in Malaysia?'

Most of us (Chinese Malaysians) still call ourselves Chinese (instead of Malaysian) even though we weren't born in or ever lived in China. I decided to start this study to glean a better understanding of who I am, and am approaching the question through the lens of food.
In the name of research, I went on a field trip to Fujian—Quanzhou and Xiamen, specifically—to explore the food culture there. Because I had never been to China before, I invited a friend whom I'd met at a conference. She's a Shanghainese who was also interested in exploring Fujian. Not only did Cai Qing introduce me to insider info, such as the apps that mainland Chinese use to explore food, but she was also a great help when it came to arranging transportation.
Taking four long years, my full thesis revolves around bak kut teh and Hokkien Mee. Let's begin by delving into bak kut teh."

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Bak kut teh travelled from port to port

"How did I know where to start? Most Hokkiens in Klang hail from South Fujian, which is near the 'three big cities' a.k.a. Quanzhou, Xiamen and Zhangzhou. 

Therefore, I conducted research on each city's specialities and whether any dishes were similar to what we have in Malaysia, especially in the context of Klang itself. I came to the conclusion that there were specific dishes I wanted to narrow down on.

My research took us to Quanzhou, a port city with a very interesting background. A lot of Arabian traders settled in Quanzhou, making for a multicultural environment not unlike that found in Malaysia. You'll find mosques, churches and temples within walking distance of each other."

See also: The Ulam School Shines The Spotlight On A Forgotten Malaysian Salad

Tatler Asia
Above Klang by night (Photo: Deva Darshan via Unsplash)
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Bak kut teh shares stark similarities with a Chinese Muslim beef stew

"Called niu pai, one of Quanzhou's specialities is a beef stew with herbal characteristics. I thought of bak kut teh when I first tasted it, which left little doubt that there is a link. Niu pai has less dark soy sauce and herbs, but boasts the same richness.

Plus, they eat it with you fan or oily rice that's similar to the shallot rice we enjoy with bak kut teh.

By the way, niu pai directly translates to 'beef steak,' but not in the Western sense. Instead of fillet of beef, they use beef ribs, and as you may already know, bakuteh means 'meat bone tea'."

Check out: Who Are The Chettis Of Melaka? And What Is Hindu-Peranakan Cuisine?

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Why pork, and in Malaysia, no less?

"Another question I explored is, 'Why does bak kut teh in Malaysia incorporate pork instead of beef?'

Firstly, it comes down to ethnoscapes. There is a tendency for people to cling on to any vestiges of ancestral knowledge. Chinese cultural practices have been found to be more concentrated traits among migrants; scholars from China have been known to visit Malaysia specifically to study this phenomenon. Because our grandparents didn't eat beef for religious reasons, our parents, despite not being devout, also cut down on beef consumption. Younger generations don’t hold back because we’re had more exposure to a wider variety of food.

Secondly, pork was much cheaper than beef because of the pig rearing programmes of the '60s and '70s. Unlike beef or mutton, pork wasn't prized by the other races in Malaysia, which meant that the Chinese community didn’t have to go compete, price-wise."

Related: They Left Their Homes To Help Build Our F&B Industry

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Singaporean bak kut teh has different roots, hence the huge difference in flavour

"If you really wanted to categorise bak kut teh under a type of cuisine, there would be two brackets: Hokkien and Teochew.

Singapore's lighter style of bak kut teh is more influenced by the Teochew of Chaozhou way, with a strong emphasis on pepper. If you've ever had bak kut teh in Johor, you will note that it is very similar to Singapore's."