Sometimes the simplest dish is the hardest one to get right…or at least to get really good. In Singapore and Malaysia, one such dish is bak kut teh, or “pork bone tea”. BKT, as I will call it for the purposes of brevity, is a Chinese dish (but very popular in Malaysia and Singapore) of boiled pork ribs in a broth with Chinese herbs and seasonings, usually served in a clay pot with fried Chinese donuts (you tiao), rice, and a dipping sauce made from soy sauce and chilies on the side. It is made most often by Chinese hawkers in Kopitiam (a kind of Malaysian coffee shop with several vendors inside), hawker centers and stand alone restaurants that specialize in BKT, and is most popular as a morning meal.
There are as many different variations as there are vendors of the ubiquitous menu item, some putting dried and fresh mushrooms in the broth, others add tofu skins or Chinese celery or green onions for instance.
The broth is the most important aspect of BKT and everyone has their secrets as to what goes into it. Some versions are almost clear soups, others approach the color of weak coffee; some are cloudy and fatty, most are lean and peppery from the copious amounts of white pepper added. The combination of herbs used tends to be the secret, but some things seem to be constant: star anise, cinnamon, cloves, and garlic. Other aromatics used might be boxthorn berries, solomon’s seal rhizome, dried orange peel, etc. Soy sauce (both light and dark) and the aforementioned white pepper are used pretty much uniformly to season the broth.
Pork ribs are always present, but one can also find pork offal, pork hock, and other porky bits in the mix.
I have just spent about a week in Malaysia and Singapore and one of my main objectives was to revisit bak kut teh and sample as many versions as possible as older memories of flavors can become muddied and confused, and we sell the dish at Ping so want to have as good a version as possible. I am pleased to say we have been coming pretty close, but our version has been a little too sweet, the culprit being a bit too much rock sugar added to the broth. Adjustments have been made.
My favorite of the trip was in Melaka, (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malacca_Town) which is a small city on the west coast of peninsular Malaysia, about 3 hours south of Kuala Lumpur. Bak Kut Teh Teo Chew is on a side street near the center of Melaka, and I found it wandering around one morning looking for breakfast. They only serve BKT, with the addition of a braised pork hock in a very dark soy gravy as a side dish. The broth was subtly herbaceous, slightly sweet, porky and peppery with a little fat on top, and the ribs were tender, meaty and perfectly cooked. The dipping sauce was light soy with separate dishes of chiles (2 kinds) and garlic for you to mix to your own taste. There was dark soy available and more powdered white pepper to add as needed. I knocked it all back accompanied by some weak Chinese tea.
The owner is a second generation BKT specialist, and his father opened the shop he now runs about 30 years ago. He was surprised to see a honky tourist sitting down at 7:30am in his joint, and was curious how I found the place as his customers are almost all regulars who have been coming there for years. My answer was “I followed my nose”: the smell of his aromatic soup was evident from a block away. Only after I finished eating and was taking leave did I spot the name of the restaurant painted in big block letters on the side of the building.
In Singapore , where I spent the next few days, I failed to find a version that stood up to Teo Chew’s, though I did have a great version of Yong Tau Foo…which is a whole ‘nuther story.