bak kuh teh - my 'souper' culinary exploration.

After a long morning of shopping I was exceptionally hungry and although time is of the essence I knew I needed something more substantial than a quick grab ‘n’ go sandwich to satisfy my food fascinations.

I remembered that little Asian place in the Queen Victoria Building “Laksa House” that would surely have something to fulfil my stomach and my palate.

As I ventured en route evocative smells of garlic, ginger, chilli and lemongrass wafted towards me making my hunger intensify. The place was a bustle and although originally had thoughts of about enjoying a creamy, spicy laksa or perhaps some char kway teo or belachan beans however a special caught my eye…Bak Kuh Teh.

It was totally unfamiliar to me and yet there was no description, or photo, telling me what this was. Being an epicurious little girl I had to take myself on a culinary exploration and find out what this dish was.

Eagerly I waved for attention of the busy staff so someone could explain the special Bak Kuh Teh. Just a soup made with chicken and beef and a little soy. Sounded a little boring but my food life has always been about taking the road less travelled…so why stop now?

Yet what arrived was not ‘just a soup’ but a salacious dark, aromatic broth heaving with beef short ribs, chopped chicken thighs and wings and rustic chunks of shitake mushrooms. Served with a bowl of steamed rice and a bowl of what looked like soy and chopped chillies. Immediately the enchanting perfumed aromas of garlic, ginger, star anise and cinnamon hit my nose.

My mind, body and soul filled with anticipation for the first taste....and they were not disappointed. What a flavourful orgiastic satisfaction to the senses it was!

As the broth filled my mouth I tasted the strong roasted beef and chicken notes, the yeasty earthy flavours from the mushrooms and soy. Yet there was also a hint of sweetness and caramel. I wondered if they had added some sugar to balance the saltiness of the broth and richness of the meats. The meat from the beef ribs was so tender it fell of the bone and melted in the mouth. Having both chicken and beef gave a luscious, complex fattiness to the broth that would make a cardiologist shudder, yet, for gourmands like me, it delivered a warming inner smile!

My tastebuds danced and twirled with excitement as it experienced the aromatic flavours of garlic, ginger and black pepper, woody cinnamon, the fragrant star anise, but there were some other flavours and ingredients I couldn’t quite recognise there was strong licorice flavour more pungent, than what I’d normally expect from star anise and distinctive herby note.

There were some strange looking seeds and sticks in my soup….which I could smell and taste as spices but couldn’t put a name to them – what were these flavours and ingredients that I was experiencing? I had to take find out what was in this soup so took my culinary exploration a little further a field and ask for some ‘local’ insights.

I had noticed a woman dining nearby who had talked to some of the staff in a foreign tongue. I approached her to see if she could help me in my quest. Originally born in Malaysia, she was very familiar with Bak Kuh Teh and would gladly help. I showed her the spices and although I recognised the cinnamon, black pepper, clove and star anise the others spices were the woody outer bark of the cinnamon tree, some licorice seed, and the herby flavours I were tasting were from a collection of Chinese medicinal herbs, that are always included in this soup, however she was very apologetic as she couldn’t remember their names.

She also pointed out that although this one was made with beef and chicken, it is traditionally made with pork. It was originally eaten for breakfast, yet is now eaten throughout the day in Malaysia. It is available everywhere from small restaurants, on the street “hawker’ stalls however most commonly it is a family dish made at home.

She remembers her mother usually making it with pork ribs and sometimes lamb ribs, but whatever meat is used it must be made with meat that is on the bone.

I asked her about the sides served with the soup. Traditionally it is served with rice, as it was for me today, however sometimes with noodles or with what she called 'yau char kway' otherwise known as Chinese crullers which are strips of fried dough and are dunked into the soup. And the bowl of chilli/soy sauce is for dipping the meat as you work your way through the soup.

She also mentioned that often it is served with crispy shallots and strong black Chinese tea, which is supposed to help you digest the rich fattiness of the soup broth and meat.

I thanked her for her valuable insights and continued to explore.

With each mouthful I lingered, letting my mind and senses discover every flavour while making mental notes in my head. I wanted to memorise the individual flavours and the interplay of these herbs, spices, and ingredients.

In true Asian fashion I slurped the soup and savoured the essence of each spoon until there was not a single drop left. And as I finished I made a vow to search its origins, and a recipe so I could recreate it.

Bak Kut Teh literally translates to means ‘pork bone tea’ is a soup and introduced to Malaysia in the 19th century by Chinese workers who worked in the ports. They ate bak kut teh for energy and strength as they often ate quite a meagre diet and, due to the addition of medicinal herbs, it also acted as a tonic to boost their health.

It is now eaten throughout the day and popular in China, Malaysia, Singapore, Batam in Indonesia and Hat Yai in Thailand. It is traditionally cooked in a clay pot whereby the meaty pork bones, usually ribs, and dried mushrooms are cooked in a broth infused with herbs such as Dong Quai (Chinese angelica/female ginseng) and the spices, that I had tasted, cinnamon, star anise, garlic, cloves and licorice seed. It is also flavoured with dark or light soy sauce and sometimes a little salt and sugar.

The inclusion of other meats into this soup, such as chicken, beef and lamb originated with south East Asian Muslims wanting to adopt this soup into their repertoire but not being able to eat pork. However as it is such a common family staple you often find that these days the soup can be made with whatever meat is available, as long as its meat on the bone.

There are numerous variations of bak kut teh throughout Asia.

  • The most common variant is the Teochew style, which is lighter in color and more spicy as they make the soup with light soy and include a great proportion of pepper.
  • The Hokko style (or Hokkien) is more saltier and darker in colour as they use more soy sauce and traditionally dark soy.
  • The Cantonese style is a much stronger flavoured soup as contains more spices and medicinal herbs.

Bah Kut Teh is intensely flavourful and hearty and certainly my cup of tea. So why not take a tea break, of the pork kind, some time!

bak kut teh
Serves 4

600g pork back ribs or spareribs, chopped into pieces
5 cloves garlic, peeled
1 thumb-sized piece chinese angelica (dong quai)
2 ½ Litres boiling water
3 cinnamon sticks
5 whole star anise
1 tablespoon white peppercorns
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
2 tablespoons dark or light soy sauce, or to taste
1 tsp salt
2 tsp sugar
2 tbsp crispy Thai shallot flakes
3 tbsp Sweet soy sauce
1 thinly sliced small red chillies

  • Place rib pieces into a large saucepan, and add enough cold water to cover them. Bring to the boil until a foamy scum rises to the surface. Remove foamy scum and discard. Drain ribs, rinse with cold water and return to saucepan.
  • Add garlic, Chinese angelica, star anise, peppercorns, boiling water, sugar, salt and soy sauce. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low and simmer uncovered for 1 hour or until the meat is tender and shrinks from the bones. Skim any excess oil from the surface and discard.
  • Taste the soup and season soup to balance it , to taste, with a little extra salt, sugar and dark soy sauce.
  • Combine sweet soy sauce and chillies in small bowls as a dipping sauce for the ribs.
  • Serve soup in deep bowls with 3 to 4 rib pieces per serving then sprinkle shallot flakes over the top. Serve with a bowl of steamed rice on the side.