Bak kut teh



Bak kut teh, or  pork ribs soup, is a popular Chinese dish in Singapore.1 The dish consists of pork ribs stewed with a mixture of fragrant herbs and spices such as garlic, cloves, cinnamon, star anise, fennel seeds and coriander.2 Referring to the main ingredient in the dish, bak kut teh (Hokkien) and rou gu cha (Mandarin) translate literally to “meat bone tea”.3

Origin
Bak kut teh is believed to have originated from China’s Fujian province. The introduction of the dish to Singapore and Malaysia is attributed to Hokkien immigrants who moved to this region in the 19th century.4 The dish is said to have been popular with the Chinese coolies as a hearty breakfast before embarking on their backbreaking tasks of the day.5

In September 2009, however, the tourism minister of Malaysia, Ng Yen Yen, disputed the Chinese origin of the dish, claiming that bak kut teh was a Malaysian dish created by a Chinese physician in Klang during the 1930s. This claim has not yet been proven.6

Description
There are three traditional variants of bak kut teh in Singapore: Hokkien, Teochew and Cantonese. As the Hokkien people prefer soups that are robust, their strand of bak kut teh is a strongly scented, thick and cloudy soup that has been boiled with rock sugar and a wide variety of herbs.7 The dark brown colour of the soup is due to the addition of copious amounts of dark soy sauce, as the Hokkiens often like their food to be saltier compared with their counterparts.8

The Cantonese, with their fondness for herbal soups, add more medicinal herbs to the dish. Theirs is a less salty version of the Hokkien-style bak kut teh but with a strong herbal taste. Additional ingredients used include button mushrooms, Chinese cabbage and dried tofu.9

Teochew soups are typically clear in appearance and light in taste. As such, the Teochew variant of bak kut teh is seasoned only with garlic, soy sauce and pepper, with the soup simmered and skimmed. The result is a fine, light brown consommé that is garlicky and peppery.10

Non-pork variants of bak kut teh using other meats such as mutton, beef or even ostrich meat have also been developed in Singapore. These alternatives were introduced to cater to the Muslim community or as a result of the Nipah virus outbreak in the late 1990s.11

Bak kut teh is typically eaten with steamed white rice, you tiao (dough fritters), offal, preserved vegetables and braised beancurd skin. Light or dark soy sauce is used as a dip. Sliced chilli, minced garlic or chopped chilli padi are often added to the dipping sauce. Chinese tea is the preferred beverage when having bak kut teh, as it is believed to help wash down the oil and fat from the dish.12 While the preparation of bak kut teh traditionally required one to buy and prepare the necessary herbs and spices, bak kut teh premix packets are now also available.13

Many popular bak kut teh stalls can be found in the central business district and in the areas around Balestier Road and Geylang Road.14



Author

Damien Lim



References
1. Life!eats: A guide to Singapore’s best food places. (2004). Singapore: Singapore Press Holdings, pp. 112–113. (Call no: RSING 647.955957 LIF)
2. Grêlé, D. (2004). Discover Singapore on foot. Singapore: Select Publishing, p. 130. (Call no.: RSING 915.957 GRE-[TRA]); Naleeza Ebrahim & Yaw, Y. Y. (2006). Not just a good food guide: Singapore. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, p. 153. (Call no.: RSING 647.955957 NAL)
3. Hong, C. (2009, December 23). Halal bak kut the a boiling issue. The Straits Times, p. 16. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Life!eats: A guide to Singapore’s best food places. (2004). Singapore: Singapore Press Holdings, pp. 112–113. (Call no: RSING 647.955957 LIF)
4. Tam, E. (2008). Singapore: Eat, drink & be merry. Singapore: Page One, p. 81. (Call no.: RSING 915.95704 TAM-[TRA])
5. Tay, L. (2010, May 26). Founder Bak Kut Teh: From pig farmer to bak kut teh [Blog post]. Retrieved 2016, August 30 from ieatishootipost website: http://ieatishootipost.sg/founder-bak-kut-teh-from-pig-farmer-to-bak-kut-teh
6. Looi, E. (2009, September 18). Truly Malaysian? The Straits Times, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; ‘We’ll apologize if dish not Malaysian’. (2009, September 25). The New Paper. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/
7. Chan, M. (1992). Margaret Chan’s foodstops. Singapore: Landmark Books, p. 106. (Call no.: RSING 647.955957 CHA)
8. Naleeza Ebrahim & Yaw, Y. Y. (2006). Not just a good food guide: Singapore. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, p. 154. (Call no.: RSING 647.955957 NAL)
9. Naleeza Ebrahim & Yaw, Y. Y. (2006). Not just a good food guide: Singapore. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, pp. 153–155. (Call no.: RSING 647.955957 NAL)
10. Chan, M. (1992). Margaret Chan’s foodstops. Singapore: Landmark Books, p. 106. (Call no.: RSING 647.955957 CHA); Life!eats: A guide to Singapore’s best food places. (2004). Singapore: Singapore Press Holdings, pp. 112–113. (Call no: RSING 647.955957 LIF)
11. Lum, M. (1999, April 25). Can’t stand it! I’ve got to pig out. The Straits Times, p. 14; Strategy is effective in drawing more customers, including non-Muslim. (1995, November 16). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
12. Grêlé, D. (2004). Discover Singapore on foot. Singapore: Select Publishing, p. 130. (Call no.: RSING 915.957 GRE-[TRA]); Tam, E. (2008). Singapore: Eat, drink & be merry. Singapore: Page One, p. 81. (Call no.: RSING 915.95704 TAM-[TRA]); Life!eats: A guide to Singapore’s best food places. (2004). Singapore: Singapore Press Holdings, p. 112. (Call no: RSING 647.955957 LIF)
13. Wong, A. Y. (2001, May 6). Prima strikes out with bak kut teh and other hawker fare. The Straits Times, p. 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
14. Grêlé, D. (2004). Discover Singapore on foot. Singapore: Select Publishing, p. 124. (Call no.: RSING 915.957 GRE-[TRA])



The information in this article is valid as at 2016 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

Subject
Cooking, Chinese
Ethnic foods
Cooking, Singaporean
Ethnic Communities>>Food
Cookery>>Types of meals>>Soups
Cookery>>International and regional cooking>>Chinese