Since I run a tea shop in Singapore, my overseas friends sometimes ask me what uniquely characterizes our local tea culture. Singapore, along with Malaysia and Hong Kong, represents a meeting point between eastern and western tea cultures. As former British colonies with sizable migrant Southern Chinese communities, the influences of both tea cultures are apparent to all. For example, in Singapore, high tea and dim sum outlets provide patrons with ample choices during the afternoon hour. For us, tea could just as well mean Tieguanyin or Darjeeling. At the same time, there is an aspect of our tea culture that is unique to Singapore and Malaysia – bak kut teh.
For the uninitiated, bak kut teh literally means “pork ribs tea.” That is not to say that the porkers are infused to produce a drink, but rather it refers to a pork ribs soup that is traditionally served with tea, Chaozhou style no less. There is some contention as to whether the dish originated from Singapore or Malaysia, but that is a topic for a later discussion.
In Singapore, bak kut teh was the food of choice for coolies in Clarke Quay who unloaded the cargo off incoming ships in the 1920s. The fleshy meat served with rice provided ample nourishment for the physical labor undertaken. Somewhere along the way, the Teochew (Chaozhou – home of gongfucha) and Hokkien (Fujian – home of oolong, black, and white teas) communities added in their favorite beverage. It proved to be a perfect match. The Singaporean style of bak kut teh is largely peppery and salty in varying degrees. The spiciness and saltiness of the soup is perfectly complemented by strong bittersweet Fujian oolong tea and its sweet aftertaste.
From a traditional Chinese medicine perspective, pepper is considered “warming.” The “slightly cooling” nature of oolong tea serves to neutralize the effects of the pepper, delivering a zesty, perky meal without causing added heat. Pure genius. Even more endearing is that traditional bak kut teh joints have the old Teochew tea trays with a tiny brewing vessel and appropriate drinking cups. While waiting for the food to be served or after meals, one can relax and brew tea in a relaxed, unhurried, and traditional Teochew/Hokkien manner, extracting the holistic enjoyment of tea.
For me, this is the quintessential Singapore tea experience, an unpretentious, authentic tea experience that is uniquely local. It is a pity that the younger generation of Singaporeans tends to order soft drinks instead of tea with their bak kut teh, which makes for an incomplete experience. If you are ever in Singapore, do try our local tea culture and be sure to order tea instead of 100 Plus. Even if you have never brewed tea in the gongfu tea style, you can ask the local servers to show you. This would probably be the cheapest tea appreciation course you could ever get!