The Origins of Bak Kut Teh

Amidst the chaos of the Chinese Revolution in 1911, our Chinese ancestors have uprooted their lives in China and relocated to Singapore, then known as Nanyang.

(Under the British Rule, or As one of the British’s colonies,) the country flourished from its port kept bustling with many toiling labourers or named ‘Coolies’. Most of the migrant workers who arrived from China had low qualifications and social statuses which resulted in the need for them to exchange their strenuous hours of hard work for meager salaries. Our ancestors then had to take up jobs such as trishaw-men and coolies to make ends meet.

In order for them to perform their duties well, they required much strength and stamina. Given their humble wages, they were unable to afford costly Chinese herbs and meal. Hence, they exercised their creativity to adapt the herbal soup recipes from the provinces of 闽南 (Min Nan) and 潮汕 (Chao Shan) to boost their health and immunity.

Using the readily available pepper, garlic, spices and herbs found along the Singapore River, our ancestors were able to simmer a nourishing bowl of soup with the discarded pig bones from market. Enjoyed with a pot of hot Chinese tea, this was a meal meant to provide strength and sustain health. Then known as 苦力茶 (Coolie Tea), the dish gradually grew in popularity as it was considered the poor man’s delicacy and supplement.

A recipe handed down from generations before us, Coolie Tea was adapted by many and soon became known as the present-day Bak Kut Teh. (肉骨茶)


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