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Bak-kut-teh (also spelt bah-kut-teh; Chinese: 肉骨茶; Pe̍h-ōe-jī: bah-kut-tê, Teochew dialect: nêg8-gug4-dê5) is a pork rib dish cooked in broth popularly served in Malaysia and Singapore where there is a predominant Hoklo and Teochew community, and also in neighbouring areas like Riau Islands and Southern Thailand.
The name literally translates from hokkien(dialect) as “meat bone tea”, and at its simplest, consists of meaty pork ribs simmered in a complex broth of herbs and spices (including star anise, cinnamon, cloves, dang gui, fennel seeds and garlic) for hours. Despite its name, there is in fact no tea in the dish itself; the name refers to a strong oolong Chinese tea which is usually served alongside the soup in the belief that it dilutes or dissolves the copious amount of fat consumed in this pork-laden dish.
However, additional ingredients may include offal, varieties of mushroom, choy sum, and pieces of dried tofu or fried tofu puffs. Additional Chinese herbs may include yu zhu (玉竹, rhizome of Solomon’s Seal) and ju zhi (buckthorn fruit), which give the soup a sweeter, slightly stronger flavor. Light and dark soy sauce are also added to the soup during cooking, with varying amounts depending on the variant – the Teochews version is lighter than the Hokkiens’. The dish can be garnished with chopped coriander or green onions and a sprinkling of fried shallots.
In Malaysia, it is often served with strips of fried dough called you char kueh (or 油條, 油条, youtiao, in Mandarin). Soy sauce (usually light soy sauce, but dark soy sauce is also offered sometimes) is preferred as a condiment, with which chopped chilli padi and minced garlic is taken together. Tea of various kinds, for example the Tieguanyin (鐵觀音, 铁观音) variety which is popular in the Klang Valley area of Malaysia, is also usually served in the belief that it dilutes or dissolves the copious amount of fat consumed in this pork-laden dish. Bak kut teh is typically eaten for breakfast, but may also be served as lunch. The Hokkien and Teochew are traditionally tea-drinking cultures and this aspect runs deep in their cuisines.
Bak-kut-teh is commonly consumed in both Malaysia and Singapore. The origin of Bak-kut-teh is unclear, but it is believed to have been brought over from Fujian, China. In Malaysia, the dish is popularly associated with Klang, and locals believed the place to be the origin of bak kut teh. There are a number of claims for the invention of the dish; one claimed that a local sinseh (a Chinese physician) invented the dish in the 1930s, while another claimed he brought the recipe from his hometown Fujian, China, in the 1940s. The dish is also claimed to have been invented in Port Klang for coolies working at the port to supplement their meagre diet and as a tonic to boost their health in the early 20th century. The dish was popular among early Chinese immigrants, many of whom had also come from Fujian.
The Chinese word bak (肉), which means “meat” (or more specifically pork), is the vernacular pronunciation in Hokkien, but not in Teochew (which pronounced it as nek), suggesting an original Hokkien root.
There are numerous variants of bak kut teh with its cooking style closely influenced by the prevailing Chinese enclave of a certain geographical location. There are three types of Bak Kut Teh:
- The Teochew style, which is light in color but uses more pepper and garlic in the soup.
- The Hoklo (Hokkien), uses a variety of herbs and soy sauce creating a more fragrant, textured and darker soup.
- The Cantonese, with a soup-drinking culture, add medicinal herbs as well to create a stronger flavoured soup.
The main visual difference between the Hokkien and Teochew version of bak kut teh is that the Hokkiens use more dark soy sauce and thus the soup base is characteristically darker in colour.
In addition, a dry form of bak kut teh has also recently become increasingly popular within Malaysia, especially in Klang town. Although called dry, the broth is in fact reduced to a thicker gravy, to which other ingredients such as wolfberries, dried dates, dried chillies and dried squid are added. Unlike the original rib soup, the dry version has a tangier, sharper taste and is more akin to a herbal stew than the classical broth. It is often recommended locally in Malaysia as an excellent hangover cure.
In Malaysia, a less fatty variation of bak kut teh made with chicken instead of pork is called chik kut teh. It also serves as a halal version of the dish catered to Muslims, whose religion forbids them to consume pork.
Vegetarian bak kut teh also can be found in Malaysia. Instead of using pork or chicken, oyster mushroom is used.
- 10 cups water (2.5 liters)
- 1 packet Bak Kut Teh herbs (rinsed and drained)
- 3 slices Angelica Sinensis / Dong Gui (rinsed and drained)
- 12 Chinese mushrooms / shitake mushrooms (soaked, rinsed, and stalks removed)
- 2 tbsp vegetable oil
- 1 bulb garlic (separated but not peeled)
- 2 lbs baby back ribs or pork ribs, cut into bite-size pieces (900g)
- 2 tbsp dark soy sauce
- 1 piece rock sugar (10g)
- Salt to taste
- 12 small tofu puffs (cut into halves)
- 24 pieces tofu skin knots (rinsed, soaked for 20 minutes, drained) (optional)
- ¼ cup goji berries (rinsed and soaked for 10 minutes, drained (30g) (optional)
- Bring water in a large pot to a boil.
- Place all bak kut teh herbs, except for spice sachet, Solomon’s seal rhizome (yok chok), and red or black dates in a muslin filter bag. Dong gui should also be placed in the muslin filter bag.
- When water comes to a boil, place muslin bag, spice sachet, yok chok, dates, and mushrooms in the water.
- Heat canola oil in a large fry pan. Add garlic and pork ribs. Sear ribs for about 3 minutes. Stir in dark soy sauce. Turn off heat and transfer pork ribs and garlic to huge pot.
- Add rock sugar. When liquid comes back to a boil, season with salt. Reduce heat to low and allow it to simmer for about 1½ hours.
- Add tofu puffs, tofu skin knots, and goji berries. Simmer for another 30 minutes.
- Discard muslin filter bag and spice sachet.
- Serve with steamed rice, yew char kway (aka as you tiao or Chinese crullers), and cut chilies in soy sauce.