'Bak' in 'bak kut teh' means pork: Rais warns against granting dish national heritage status

Malay Mail
Malay Mail

KUALA LUMPUR, June 15 — The name of the herbal soup dish bak kut teh — which commonly features pork but has variants featuring other ingredients such as chicken — actually refers to pork itself, former minister and Dewan Negara Speaker Tan Sri Rais Yatim has claimed.

Joining a debate on whether bak kut teh should be considered to be a national heritage dish, the former culture, arts and heritage minister cited unnamed language advisers and said bak kut teh carries the meaning of pork for the word “bak”, followed by bone for the word “kut” and that the word “teh” means special herbal soup.

He then questioned what the Department of National Heritage — which he said he helped establish in 2005 — was doing, asking if the department was keeping silent or if it dared to advise the current minister in charge of culture to not be hasty.

“Study the sensitivities of Malaysians first,” he said in a Facebook post.

He said one of the principles before any object, practice or culture is recognised as heritage is that certain conditions must be fulfilled, including that the proposal for recognition does not cause racial controversy.

He also said the state government should be consulted, and that the National Heritage Act — which he said he had drafted together with experts in 2005 — should be looked at.

On June 7, MPs debated over bak kut teh in the Dewan Rakyat, after PKR MP Jimmy Puah asked if the government would protect Malaysia's traditional food as he believed bak kut teh came from Klang, Selangor while a documentary had claimed the dish could have originated from Singapore.

At that time, Deputy Tourism, Arts and Culture Minister Khairul Firdaus Akbar Khan said the government does carry out awareness programmes on local heritage food, agreeing that Malaysian heritage food should be able to be eaten by all Malaysians and said this is possible for bak kut teh if is in the form of chicken meat, but was unable to offer a specific answer since Puah's question was not specific.

On June 9, Tourism, Arts and Culture Minister Datuk Seri Tiong King Sing on Facebook said his ministry gives equal attention to all traditional foods of all ethnic groups in Malaysia and promotes such food internationally, and suggested diversity in food should be celebrated including bak kut teh as a heritage food.

Stressing the importance of mutual respect and harmonious living together, he said the ministry will continue to have bak kut teh recognised as a national dish or national heritage.

While saying that pork is a main ingredient in bak kut teh, Tiong said “halal" versions of bak kut teh featuring ingredients such as chicken or seafood instead have been introduced.

This morning, Tiong in another Facebook post said that the ministry remains open to this issue regarding bak kut teh and will take it seriously to discuss relevant suggestions.

“The most important raw material of bak kut teh is actually the herbs and it was first known to be cooked with pork. Later, in order to satisfy various ethnic groups, some people began to develop various versions of bak kut teh, such as chicken, seafood or mutton bak kut teh,” he said.

Singapore-based news agency Channel News Asia reported in June 2017 that the origin of bak kut teh is unclear but that it is believed that the Teochew variant of the dish only reached Singapore in the 1940s.

In Malaysia, the dish is popularly linked to Klang in Selangor as bak kut teh is a Hokkien phrase and the district is famous for having many restaurants featuring on its menu.

It is believed locally that bak kut teh was brought by Chinese immigrants from Fujian province in China to South-east Asia where they settled down in the 1930s.