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Bak Kut Teh earns spot as heritage dish in Malaysia, decision sparks discourse

Ah, bak kut teh, the quintessential comfort food. A warm bowl of it never fails to warm my belly up on rainy days, and my soul when I’m feeling down.

The delicious soup is a doubtless favourite among Singaporeans, and perhaps even more so among our neighbours across the Causeway. On 24 Feb 2024, the dish was announced as one of Malaysia’s national heritage dishes in a government gazette.

Tea Inn Bak Kut Teh - Herbal Bak Kut Teh
Tea Inn Bak Kut Teh - Herbal Bak Kut Teh

Bak kut teh is a soup that consists of pork ribs simmered with a rich mix of herbs and spices. It comes in 2 variations: herbal and peppery, both with their fair share of devotees.

While debate about the “better” version is a perennial talking point here in Singapore, our Malaysian friends engage in a different kind of discourse: Should a pork-based soup contend as a heritage dish in a Muslim-majority country?

Rong Hua Bak Kut Teh - Pork Ribs Soup
Rong Hua Bak Kut Teh - Pork Ribs Soup

On one hand, several believe that it should, under the conviction that the dish was born and brewed in Malaysia. Herbal-style bak kut teh hails from Port Klang and is believed to be the most authentic style.

Tuan Yuan Bak Kut Teh - Tuan Yuan Pork Ribs Soup
Tuan Yuan Bak Kut Teh - Tuan Yuan Pork Ribs Soup

On the other hand, several have called the listing to question, especially in light of the fact that more than 60% Malaysia’s population is Muslim and cannot consume the dish.

According to Malaysian news publication The Star, Opposition MP Datuk Rosol Wahid raised concerns about the probability of the move “[touching] on religious sensitivities”. He urged the Tourism, Arts and Culture Ministry to explain the decision.

“We have national dishes like burasak and uthappam which do not go against religion,” he said.

Bak kut teh joins a list of 9 other dishes, including nasi ambeng, kuih lapis and mi kolok, better known as kolo mee. Netizens contended that several of these inclusions aren’t widely-consumed either, sparking a discussion about what it means to qualify as a national heritage dish.

“National heritage food should be uniquely Malaysian, halal or not, consumed by all or not,” an X user by the handle of @bongkerz posted. “Else we let Singapore claim bak kut teh and roti canai lah.

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