Piping hot: The origin (and importance) of Bak Kut Teh sparks debate in parliament among Malaysian lawmakers

Singapore and Malaysia have always famously sparred over various food claims – from nasi lemak to roti canai – and now, bak kut teh it seems is the latest dish to be debated about.

And in parliament nonetheless.

What’s so special about bak kut teh?

The name of the dish quite literally translates to “meat bone tea” in Hokkien dialect and is popular across Southeast Asia, mainly in Singapore and Malaysia.

The dish consists of pork ribs cooked slowly in a broth of herbs and spices for hours.

While its exact origins are unclear, it is often said that the Malaysian version is described to be more herbal while the Singapore variation is said to be peppery.


Its origins is the exact reason the popular pork rib dish was brought up in a a heated parliamentary session at the Dewan Rakyat when Tebrau MP Jimmy Puah passionately urged the government to recognize bak kut teh as a national heritage food.

Puah referenced a documentary which he saw on Channel News Asia which suggested that bak kut teh started in Singapore and was “slightly frustrated” by this as he insisted that originated from Klang.

Puah pushed the agenda further and asked if the Tourism, Arts, and Culture Ministry are planning to defend and protect the pork-based traditional dish as a national dish.

A truly Malaysian dish?

In response, Deputy Minister Khairul Firdaus Akbar Khan shed light on the government’s ongoing efforts to create awareness among locals, helping them distinguish between local delicacies and those originating from other regions.

Emphasizing the need for inclusivity, Khairul said, “While our neighboring countries may have a similar culinary heritage, we do not have the authority to dispute their claims. However, we can establish the distinction between our own traditional food and theirs through government-led awareness programs.”

He also added that there are government grants that are dedicated to increasing awareness of the Malaysian culinary heritage on local and international levels.

Another conundrum brought up by Opposition Langkawi MP, Suhaimi Mohd Abdullah is whether bak kut teh should be on the list of Malaysian heritage food items.

Listing various well-known Malaysian delicacies, he inquired, “When did Bak kut teh become recognized as Malaysia’s traditional cuisine? It is not among the popular traditional food items such as nasi lemak, kuih bahulu, gula melaka, ketupat, char kuey teow, sizzling yee mee, bubur nasi, tong yuan, kuih bulan, kuih bakul, muruku, tosai, idly, and putu mayam.”

Khairul chipped in once more stating that as a heritage dish, it should be enjoyed by all Malaysians and all races – which puts the pork-based dish in a contentious area.

While the fate of bak kut teh seems uncertain now, Khairul revealed during the session that the Ministry of Tourism, Arts, and Culture had recently submitted an application to UNESCO in March, seeking recognition for nasi lemak, roti canai, and teh tarik as representatives of Malaysia’s breakfast culture. Well that’s something that we don’t have to fight about.


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