It doesn’t sound or even look all that impressive. Bak kut teh (literally “meat bone tea”) is a cloudy pork broth served with a couple of very ordinary-looking ribs.
One sip of this soup, however, is enough to tell you it’s no weak-kneed watery broth. It’s deliciously rich and garlicky with a subtle peppery depth of flavour that only comes from long patient simmering.
I discovered this soup in Singapore on the morning after a late-night arrival. I was jetlagged, famished and in a general state crankiness. As always, my lifelong friend and food guide James knew just the solution. I soon found myself sitting at a street stall with a bowl of bak kut teh and chunks of yau char kwai (dough fritters) sitting in front of me.
With the first taste, all was well. I felt grounded back in Singapore’s vibrant food culture where street vendors are masters of deceptively simple yet unbelievably flavourful dishes.
There are two main styles of bak kut teh. One is relies on garlic and white pepper for its flavour, while the other is more herbal and pungent thanks to a mixture of Chinese roots, herbs and spices. Both incorporate varying amounts of light and dark soy sauce.
Upon my return home to Canada, I was longing for another taste of BKT. Fortunately, I had picked up the fantastic PLUSSIXFIVE: A Singaporean Supper Club Cookbook by Goz Lee and Friends. Leaning heavily on their recipe, I made my own version of bak kut teh.
It took a couple of days to track down the ingredients and simmer my BKT. Thankfully, my family and friends seemed pretty pleased with the outcome, slurping down second helpings and dunking dozens of my homemade dough fritter chunks.
- 2 tbsp white peppercorns
- 2 tbsp fennel seeds (extra points if you dry roast them for a few minutes)
- 4 star anise
- 12 whole cloves
- 15 cm (6 in) of cinnamon bark (try to get the raw bark rather than the fancy rolled up type)
- 4 pieces (roughly 2.5 cm/1 in each) dang gui
- 10 slices yu zhu (Solomon’s seal)
- 25 goji berries (gou qi zi)
- 4 tbsp white peppercorns
- 8 heads of garlic, unpeeled (yes, you read that right)
- 1 kg (2 lb) of meaty pork-neck bones (ask your butcher for pork soup bones)
- 2 kg (4 lb) pork ribs, cut into individual ribs
- 3.5 litres (3.75 quarts) of water
- 4 tbsp light soy sauce
- 4 tbsp dark soy sauce
- Chopped coriander
- Yau char kwai (dough fritters), cut into 2.5 cm (1 in) pieces
- Fresh chilli padi or other small red chillies, finely sliced
- Dark soy sauce
- Assemble all the ingredients for the herb sachet onto an extra-large double-layer square of cheesecloth. Then gather the corners up and tie off with butcher twine. Set aside.
- In a mortar and pestle, crush the white peppercorns. Pour the crushed peppercorns onto a extra-large double-layer square of cheesecloth. Then gather the corners up and tie off with butcher twine. Set aside.
- Bring the water to a boil in an extra-large stock pot (you’ll need lots of space). Once the water is boiling, add the herb sachet, the peppercorn sachet, pork-neck bones, ribs, light soy sauce and dark soy sauce. Ensure that the surface of water is about 5 cm (2 in) above the ribs. Top off with more water if necessary.
- Cover the pot and boil the ingredients for at least 2 hours, preferably 4 or more hours. Skim off the scum, fat and other bits that rise to the surface. Continue to top off with water to maintain a several cm of water above the ribs.
- If you have time, remove the pot from the heat, let it cool to room temperature and then chill in a fridge overnight. The next day you should be able to easily peel off the hardened layer of fat from the surface of the soup.
- To serve, heat the soup (if necessary) and then remove all the solid ingredients. Discard all the solid ingredients except for the ribs. Add 2-3 ribs to each individual bowl, ladle in the soup and garnish with the coriander. On the side, serve individual plates of the yau char kwai pieces for dipping and small dishes of chillies soaking in the dark soy sauce.