Is bak kut teh healthy for you?

Diets, Heart Diseases, Popular

Bak kut teh is a well known known Chinese dish. Sometimes people translate bak kut teh as a kind of tea but to me, it is very much like a herbal soup. Originally a Hokkien dish, it is much loved by many Chinese folks in Malaysia and Singapore. The soup is boiled with Chinese medicinal herbs and pork meat and bones for many hours. Bak kut teh is usually eaten with white rice and yao char koay (shown below in one of the meals I have taken):

Bak kut teh

Health benefits of bak kut teh

Because bak kut teh is boiled for many hours with herbs and bones, the soup is actually nutritious. It is also heaty for the body hence folks with body that is predominantly ‘yin’- ie always feel cold, cold limbs and always have sinus would feel the body warm up after taking bak kut teh. If you have arthritis or rheumatism, eating bak kut teh can provide some relief.

Those with heaty body type would feel hot and sweaty after a meal of bak kut teh. The person would be seen sweating away while eating bak kut teh. Sometimes, they may develop headache after eating because it is too heaty for them.

But….. it does not mean that eating bak kut teh is healthy for you especially those from restaurants.

Possible danger of overindulge in bak kut teh from restaurants

In the past, bak kut teh was eaten by immigrants- to warm their bodies to battle the cold weather at night and constant hunger. These migrants work most of the day in laborious jobs. Lard was very popular during my grandfather’s time – so there is nothing unusual in eating food high in saturated fat.  My grandaunt, who worked as a servant till she was 70 years old, always cook food with lots of oil and lard. Yet she was skinny as a stick and lived past 90 years old.

That is why the health conditions that are associated with the sedentary lifestyle today is hardly unheard off 50 years ago. Because we spend most of our time sitting on our butts, going round in our own car, we can no longer eat like how they used to eat and get away with it. Perhaps you figure that if you were to order bak kut teh to be served with lean meat instead of fatty meat, it would be healthy and alright to eat it often…. you need to think again.

Bak kut teh is usually served from the claypot pipping hot. But have you ever seen how the soup looked like once it has cooled down? If you buy from restaurants, there are a huge layer of fat (from the fatty pork meat) that can be seen. It is very obvious and hard for you to miss it. That means, the soup itself is already very high in fat.

And each time after taking bak kut teh, you may feel your body is heavy and you are drowsy and sleepy. If you are going back to the office, it is a little hard to concentrate. I suspect that it could be due to excessive MSG being put to make the soup as well.

If you ever buy back and put in the fridge, when you take out the next day, the unmistakable huge layer of fat would really shock you. But once you put in the microwave or pot and the soup is heated up, the fat would melt and the tempting aroma of bak kut teh would fill the entire kitchen. Then after consuming your bak kut teh, when it comes to washing up, you would notice that you would need to use a lot of dish wash liquid to get the oil out from your bowl and pot (so imagine how it is when this travels to your digestive track).

Therefore, because of the high fat content, eating too much of bak kut teh would result in weight gain, fatty liver, cholesterol and possibly blocked arteries.  It is a whole lot of saturated fat that you are consuming that rigorous exercise often cannot remove. And most people who after eating bak kut teh will go back to office to work or just go for a leisurely shopping outing.

Let me relate a real life example:

When I was still an intern on attachment from university, I worked in a place where the area is famous for its bak kut teh. There are a few restaurants specialising in bak kut teh which are constantly packed with customers especially during lunch time. When the colleagues go out to eat, they would often go and eat bak kut teh.

One day, one of the managers went to a hospital for checkup due to chest pain. This manager was known for his penchant of eating bak kut teh at least once a week. It was found that more than 90% of his arteries were blocked! He would have gotten a heart attack anytime. Immediately he underwent a bypass surgery.

Does it means that we should abstain from bak kut teh?

If the possible downside of bak kut teh exceed the health benefits, should we abstain from bak kut teh? In my opinion… not necessarily.

There are some options that you can consider:

1. Make your own bak kut teh
Nowadays there are a lot of prepacked bak kut teh herbs available in the market or in Chinatown areas of most countries. The herbs itself does not contain any fat content- they are just herbs that gives out the bak kut teh taste. All you need to do is to add your own meat and additional ingredients like mushrooms and tauhu.

Healthy bak kut teh

For example at the homemade bak kut teh above, instead of using fatty meat, lots of tauhu, mushrooms and some meatballs are added to make. For those who do not take pork, you can use chicken which now it would be called ‘chit kut teh’.

2. Eat once in a long while from restaurants
Reduce your frequency of eating from restaurants. No doubt, it is hard to be able to make your own bak kut teh to taste delicious because you would never put in tonnes of MSG and use lots of fatty meat to cook it. And if you love bak kut teh, you may need that fix, then have the homemade ones and eat in a restaurant once every few months.

Conclusion:

Bak kut teh served in restaurants would usually have very high saturated fat content. It is necessary because it is the fat from the pork that enhances the taste of the bak kut teh. Personally, I like bak kut teh too but because I have seen firsthand how the soup looked like when taken out from the fridge, I seldom go for bak kut teh anymore.

If you really like the food, you need not give it up. You just need to be willing to sacrifice a bit on taste and learn to make your own healthier version. Don’t give up if the first time it does not taste nice. Continue to work on improvise the taste. The fact that you would not get drowsy because you do not put tonnes of MSG in your own cooking would give you a positive association with your own home made bak kut teh.

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