Bah Kut Teh
By Franz Scheurer
Bah Kut Teh means different things to people living in different regions, but although based on a Chinese soup (imported by workers from Fujian), its traceable origin is arguably Klang, a seaside city in Malaysia. Chinese men were employed as koolies at the docks and as they were carrying very heavy loads it is said that a Chinese doctor in Port Klang invented the broth, using pork bones, sow's ears, cartilage and pork offal, together with spices and medicinal herbs to give the koolies nourishment and strength.
Bah Kut can be translated into pork ribs and Bah can mean meat or pork, Kut translates as bones and Teh means tea. It does not mean 'pepper soup' or 'health soup' or any other attributed name, but it is simply a broth made with pork ribs, lots of dried herbs (typically from a Chinese medicine shop) and spices (including star anise, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, galangal, coriander seeds and garlic) and consumed with tea. There are different versions of Bah Kut Teh, influenced by its ethnic origin and they vary from Teochew style (lighter and more peppery), Hokkien style (darker and more concentrated) and Cantonese (more herbal).
Traditionally it is eaten for breakfast to sustain the body and mind, but people stop all day and night to eat a bowl of cleansing, healthy and nourishing Bah Kut Teh and it's known as a good hangover cure. Depending on location, it is eaten with Eu Char Kuay (Chinese doughnut) or sometimes noodles or rice. It is always eaten accompanied by tea. Bah Kut Teh is known to freshen the breath (due to the soup's oiliness), healthy (due to the herbs and spices), nourishing (just like a European mother's chicken soup), and thought to reduce obesity (as it dissolves fatty enzymes).
So in reality Bah Kut Teh is a clear broth, made from pork ribs and pork bones, infused with a variety of herbs and spices. The people of Klang prefer their soup dark and strong, whereas the Singaporeans prefer theirs pale and peppery. The soup is never bound or murky. People from Klang insist that Bah Kut Teh can only be properly prepared by Hokkien cooks, and they should know. Bah Kut Teh is often served with extra ingredients, like dried tofu, belly pork and Chinese mushrooms and it is often served with extra condiments, like minced raw garlic, chopped chilli and light or dark soy.
Sadly the Klang version of this dish is so famous that a lot of Bah Kut Teh stores in other cities will have a sign up proclaiming 'Klang Bah Kut Teh' even though what they serve is nothing like the original.
The best Bah Kut Teh I have eaten was prepared in Klang. I do not remember the name of the eatery, but you can't miss it, as it is located on the main thoroughfare from the Port Klang ferry terminal to Klang. We just returned from Pulau Ketam (Crab Island) and we were tired and starving and Bah Kut Teh was the perfect food. You have the choice of sitting inside or outside and it's a convivial place with lots of laughter, earnest discussions and plain enjoyment of food. Large boiling kettles of water are next to each table. This enables the service staff to rinse your bowls, cutlery and cups with boiling water before you use it. Tea is offered with the Bah Kut Teh and the broth is simply sensational and the 'bread sticks' fresh and crunchy. You make your own tea from the leaves provided. You put the leaves into a very small tea kettle, add the boiling water, let it steep for a couple of minutes then pour it into the equally small tea cups, only to pour it out. The first fill is to wash and warm the cups and one only drinks the second pour. Traditionally the cups are arranged in a circle and one pours in a steady stream, following the circular pattern, until all cups are full. It's an interesting ceremony, but more importantly: it tastes great.
I have tried various offerings in other countries (e.g. Singapore, Indonesia and Australia) and I have always been disappointed. There is nothing like the real Klang Bah Kut Teh!
Bon Appétit, or In Hokkien ' Laaaaiii - CHIAK ' translated as 'LET"S EAT'
Bah Kut Teh
Interpretation on a classic by Franz Scheurer
1 kg of American pork ribs (literally just ribs, hardly any meat)
Peanut oil for frying
2 brown onions, peeled, finely chopped
3 cloves of garlic, peeled, sliced
1 small fennel bulb, cleaned and chopped
1 bag of 'Assorted spice' by Double Coins, placed in a muslin bag and tied
1 tsp coriander seeds
1 stem of lemon grass, woody pits removed, finely chopped
1 cm galangal, peeled, finely chopped
4 cm ginger, peeled, very coarsely chopped
1 cm ginger, peeled, very finely chopped
Soy to taste
Freshly cracked white pepper to taste
1 small, red chilies, chopped (do not deseed)
1 star anise
1 cinnamon quill
1 small dish of freshly minced garlic
1 small read chilli, chopped and served in a small dish covered with soy
Cut ribs into individual ribs, then chop in half. Put muslin bag of spices and ginger pieces into 2lt of water in a saucepan and bring to the boil. As soon as it boils, reduce to simmer for 20 minutes. Then take off the heat and cover. In the meantime pour some peanut oil into a fry pan, add the lemon grass, then the onions, finely chopped ginger, coriander seeds and the meat. Brown very lightly over medium heat, then add the garlic and leave on low for another 5 minutes. Remove the bag of spices and ginger pieces from the saucepan and discard. Add 1lt water and the pork pieces from the other saucepan. Discard what's left in the saucepan and wash it. Bring the stock and the meat to the boil, reduce to very light simmer and cover. Leave to simmer for 4 hours. Remove meat and set aside. Strain broth though a double-layer of muslin, make sure the pan is clean, and pour back into the pan and add the meat back into it. Add cloves, chilli, star anise and cinnamon quill and season with soy and pepper. Simmer for a further hour. Adjust seasoning and your soup is ready.
You can add boiled pork belly, pork offal, firm tofu pieces and well cooked Chinese mushrooms to the broth at service and you can mince some garlic and chop some chilli and put these on the table with some soy (dark and light) as condiments.
Note: the Double Coins 'Assorted spice' bags are available from Chinese grocery stores. They are imported by Chun Shing Trading Co. 50-52 Smith St. Marrickville NSW Tel.: 02 9519 8212
Talking to the father of East meets West cuisine, chef extraordinaire Cheong Liew, he told me how he makes Bah Kut Teh.
Here is what he has to say:
"When I make Bak Kut Teh I put some water into a pot and add lots and lots of peeled cloves of garlic, probably as many as 10 to 1lt of water. I bring the water to the boil, simmer the garlic for about 10 minutes, then add the pork and the herbs and slowly simmer it for many hours. The liquid should only just cover the meat and the herbs. I buy either a Bak Kut Teh mix from an Asian grocer - Claypot label is ok - or I go to the local Chinese herbalist and ask for Bak Kut Teh mix for a pork hock soup. The broth should be seasoned with soy and white pepper, and chopped chilli in soy and raw, minced garlic is served with the soup. Accompany this with Kung Fu tea and you're in heaven. It's important to realize that only at home would we use different cuts of pork in one pot. In a restaurant or hawker stall situation there should always be at least 3 pots on the boil, each one with different cuts of pork, e.g. one with just ribs, one with ribs and belly and one with offal. The type of meat will also automatically govern the concentration and colour of the soup and the customer often buys more than one type. The different kinds are never mixed, but eaten side by side."