Features 2 minutes 05 March 2024

Behind-the-Bib: Ah Hei in Kuala Lumpur Continues the Family Legacy of Bak Kut Teh

Carrying the torch into its 33rd year, this family-owned business is a testament to the resilience of tradition balanced with innovation.

In February 2024, Bak Kut Teh was recognised as a national heritage dish in Malaysia by Commissioner of Heritage, Mohamad Muda Bahadin, further solidifying its place in the country's culinary tapestry. And in Kuala Lumpur, Bib Gourmand restaurant Ah Hei Bak Kut Teh is one of the institutions to grab one's fill of the hearty pork soup.

However, contrary to its namesake,  Ah Hei Bak Kut Teh in Kuala Lumpur did not start off by selling Bak Kut Teh.

Mr. Chong Mung Yon and Madame Kim, a husband and wife duo, initially ventured into the culinary scene with a menu selling daily soups such as lotus root soup, pork stomach soup, coconut chicken soup, and stir-fried dishes under the name "Ah Yee Leng Tong" (Ah Yee Daily Soup) in the very same shop lot.

The first few years of the business were challenging. At that time, Madame Kim, whose roots are in Klang, a city renowned for its Bak Kut Teh, started learning how to make this dish from her relatives who lived there. Facing early challenges, the couple decided to pivot in 1991.

Desmond Chong, part of the family's second generation, sheds light on this pivotal moment. Chong explains, "My father is the second son of the family, which makes him referred to as 'Yee' in the Teochew dialect. My grandmother suggested that the name 'Ah Yee Leng Tong' be transitioned to 'Ah Hei Bak Kut Teh,' with 'Hei' symbolising happiness in Teochew, as well as a fortuitous departure from the notion of being 'second best'."

The change not only reflected a shift in focus, but it also brought about a new chapter to the family as it coincided with Chong's birth in the same year.

Both Chong and his older brother, Steven, grew up immersed in the rhythms of the business. "Our school holiday memories are filled with helping out in the restaurant. We learned the ropes at a very young age," Chong reminisces. Both brothers are fully involved in the business, with Steven overseeing the kitchen and Desmond managing all of its other aspects.

Ah Hei Bak Kut Teh
Ah Hei Bak Kut Teh

Balancing Tradition and Modernity

The secret of Ah Hei Bak Kut Teh lies in its unchanged recipe since its inception, rooted in a meticulous blend of approximately 15 herbs and spices. Despite challenges in herb sourcing and growing business demands, the commitment to traditional slow-cooking methods remains unwavering.

While Chong fully embraced the family business in 2017, the journey has had its share of challenges, especially with the elders emphasising tradition. Chong acknowledges the hurdles faced but remains steadfast in progressing the business forward.

Chong hired a graphic designer to modernise the restaurant's logo that pay homage to his family's surname.
Chong hired a graphic designer to modernise the restaurant's logo that pay homage to his family's surname.

Ah Hei Bak Kut Teh embraced technological shifts during the pandemic, such as introducing a combination of QR and manual ordering systems to cater to different generations. Social media engagement and delivery partnerships allowed the brand to reach a broader audience. Chong also worked with a graphic designer to introduce the brand identity and a brand logo, which pays homage to his family’s surname.

The restaurant's ascent to international recognition, marked by the MICHELIN Bib Gourmand, has motivated the desire to grow the business further. "We will be launching a ticketing system to manage waiting time more effectively within the next month," says Chong. Current plans for Ah Hei Bak Kut Teh include opening branches, establishing a central kitchen to streamline meat processing and production, and scaling up their ready-to-eat line.

When asked for his advice for other second-generation owners, Chong candidly shares, "Take the leap first; let your parents see the results from the changes, and this will convince them that changes are necessary to sustain the business. One good example is convincing my parents to transition from cash handling to e-wallets. Keep trying and be prepared to take on the consequences, whether they are good or bad, to gain your parents' trust. Take things one step at a time and with much patience and open communication," he advises.

Other must-try dishes at Ah Hei Bak Kut Teh are the Kampung Chicken with Ginger and Sesame Oil & Eggplant with Belacan
Other must-try dishes at Ah Hei Bak Kut Teh are the Kampung Chicken with Ginger and Sesame Oil & Eggplant with Belacan

More Than Just Bak Kut Teh

Beyond the renowned Bak Kut Teh, Chong recommends a trio of must-try dishes at Ah Hei Bak Kut Teh: Kampung (Organic/Farm-bred) Chicken with Ginger and Sesame Oil, Eggplant with Belacan, and Braised Pork Belly. These dishes, hailed as must-try by Chong, reflect a harmonious blend of flavours that evoke comfort and a sense of home.

Reflecting on his inspiration to carry on the family legacy, Chong reflects on how his parents worked hard to build the business from scratch, and how it would be a waste not to continue the business. "Like Nasi Lemak, Bak Kut Teh is one of the local delicacies that everyone must try when they visit Malaysia, and I am motivated to serve the most genuine version of Bak Kut Teh to the world," he expresses.

All images are courtesy of Ah Hei Bak Kut Teh.

Ah Hei Bak Kut Teh is located at 33A Medan Imbi, Pudu, Kuala Lumpur, 55100, Malaysia.


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