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The memoir of Bak Kut Teh 肉骨茶

Updated: Jun 27, 2022

One of the most iconic food in Asian cuisine is the Bak Kut Teh (BKT). Most Malaysian people would know it, specifically of Chinese descent, like the people of Hokkien (Fujian) and Teo Chew. What is BKT? What does it taste like? How and when do you eat with it?

In this article, we are going to share some stories and help you understand more about this amazing dish :)

Let us start with: Why is it iconic?

This dish probably put Klang Town on the map. Even though it sounds like an exaggeration, but there's a small truth about it. I am sure most Klangnites would agree with me on this. True story, when Klangnites like myself make an introduction about where I am from or was born, or have lived, the common comeback is them asking: "Where is Klang?". To further elaborate an answer to that: "Have you heard of 'Klang's Bak Kut Teh'"? Then they immediately begin to register in their minds.

Today, BKT is widely known in most parts of Asian countries. I did the same introduction to my friends from China, Indonesia, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, and I got the same response.

BKT is full of flavours, cooked for hours and infused with at least 12 or more Chinese traditional herbs and spices. Some consider it a nourishment broth, for some, it is a simple delicacy, and for others, it is a rare commodity as people would travel far to Klang just to have this meal.

We have Bak Kut Teh for breakfast!

Yes, believe it or not. We have it purely as breakfast during the 1970s and the 80s in Klang. As a born and bred Klangnite and with grandparents as chefs, we can confirm it.

My grandparents used to operate a Bak Kut Teh and steamboat (hotpot) restaurants in Klang during that time.

How do we eat it?

As mentioned, BKT was, and some still eat them in the morning, and this still stands true. It was said that BKT was purely served as breakfast until the mid-70s and only then expanded to 24 hours due to its popularity.

It is unknown to many people, and even the Malaysians today were shocked when they heard about having it as breakfast. However, for the Klangnites and fans, it is still a common practice. Although eating it any other way is not wrong, it is always good to remember the origins and the old ways.

Why is that? A good broth takes hours to turn into perfection. When the herbs are infused, the meat is tender, and the flavours are maximised. So it was common that the preparation was made during the night; thus, the chefs let it boil overnight in medium heat so they could be ready before the morning! The best time to serve is as soon as it is done! Everyone wants the best, and nobody wants to be late and scrap on the bottom of the pot. That could be the biggest reason why people decided to have it for breakfast. With the other factors, the afternoon heat in south-east Asia is a deterrent to having such hot broth, and night-time is usually the second most popular time as a late supper.

Why Teh (茶 Tea) get to do with it?

The common misconception of having tea leaves as part of the ingredients. But there isn't any of it in the recipe. Maybe is the routine as the name suggested?

肉骨 茶 = Bak Kut Teh

  1. Bak Kut literally means meat & bone (pork rib); You first pick your favourite meat parts. Choices include pork rib, fatty meat, knuckle, belly or mixed.

  2. Pick or Bring Your Own Teh (Tea)

Teh: a name or tea?

Whether or not the word "Teh" was the name of the founding members, we aren't sure, but it is surely a part of a ritual to have tea paired with BKT. It is rare to see tea kettles placed around the restaurants today compared to the past traditional ways. The practice starts with tea brewing, and the hot water from the first brewing is to be used to rinse the tea leaves and then reuse the same water to rinse your teacups and utensils for your guests and yourself. The second brew onwards is the one to drink. Bringing your own tea leaves (BYO) is highly welcome!

Instead of normal steamed rice, it is eaten with a bowl of special fragrant rice cooked with fried shallots and seasoning, maximising the pairing and giving it an extra hint of flavour.

Other popular variations

As society grows, so does BKT. Today you can find a lot of different types of BKT.

We can cook it with chicken or lamb instead of pork for meat lovers. Yes, you can even make it as a Halal version.

The seafood lovers' fresh catch from the fishing villages complemented well with the Bak Kut Teh. There are many BKT restaurants sole focus on claypot seafood Bak Kut Teh.

Let's us not forget about the vegetarian and vegan versions too - the healthier version with tofu and fuchok, and add varieties of mushrooms

Eat it like a local Klangnite.

Have it with fresh chilli and soy sauce as a dipping, or request extra fried shallots on the side.

With yóu tiáo (油条) fried Chinese donut.

With fresh or stir-fried lettuce.

油条 yóu tiáo = Fried Chinese Donut

There's more!

Not to mention, Klang Bak Kut Teh restaurants are so creative and even invented the Dry Bak Kut Teh as a new variation. This is truly one of the masterpieces, and it is impossible to make dry BKT without the traditional BKT. This variation is like an extended version, the broth is cooked and stirred into a thicker and dryer consistency with okras, dried chillies, and squids.

Why was it so popular in the past?

One of the reasons could be because of its rarity. It is not common or easy to make this dish at home. The rare herbs ingredients are not available in any normal markets or groceries, so the masters (chefs) will visit the traditional Chinese apothecary for these. BKT is one of the few cuisines that use traditional Chinese medicine in culinary.

As time goes by, Bak Kut Teh sellers got innovative and started to introduce the clay pot style of serving, with add dishes such as fried fuchok, taupok, varieties of mushrooms and vegetables with generous portions of soup, that seemed to be appealing to families.

The business started to pick up, more stalls and restaurants are setting up, and business is booming. Basically, that’s how clay pot Bak Kut Teh popularised Klang town and now

(Klang Original Flavour - klangoriginalbkt - .

It gets more interesting!

Historically, as mentioned by some sources, poverty and opium could be the few possible reasons why BKT became a popular local cuisine for the Chinese immigrants during the 1920s. (Source: National Library of Medicine). Visit the National Achieve of Singapore for more.

Pork rib with little to no meat was the cheapest and most accessible to the struggling immigrants. They would boil a pork bone soup with soy sauce and add some Chinese herbs for nourishment. It was believed that having a nourishment soup would help fortify Qis (The health of the body) and improve the immune system.

Regarding opium, the side effects of taking in the substance would degrade a person's health, so the nourishment and heavy herbal BKT would help counter it. I have also heard from a grandfather's tale that because of the strong flavours of the dish, it washes away the smell of the opium-smoking. ​

There was an interesting study about this; I didn't know about this until I interviewed my uncle, who still lives in Klang. Of course, he is wiser than I am on the topic. Also, he had helped manage my grandparents' restaurants back then too. How I wish my grandparents were still around, it would be lovely to get their memories and insight into this.

Where is it from?

There is a long history of debate about its origin. There are no written records, and like any other recipe, who can say who created it? We can only rely on stories from grandparents' tales. There are always different stewed pork versions from various Asian countries but nothing close to Klang BKT. The name Bak Kut Teh originated from Klang.

Based on the long track record of popularity, it's no doubt that Klang produces the best Bak Kut Teh. Otherwise, why would people outside of Klang want to market or claim their BKT products as though they are from Klang's, like a marketing PR?

Where to find it?

We are living in a wonderful time. With the advancement of technology and food manufacturing, most foods are available and accessible pre-packaged with easy-to-cook instructions. People can make it in the comfort of their own homes without going to an apothecary or Chinese medical shop with a list anymore. Although, some chefs still do it. Maybe they want to stay true to the traditions and/or qualities.

Please comment below and tell us where is the best Bak Kut Teh you tried, and how was it made or any different?. We love to hear about your experience with this iconic dish.


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