Bak Kut Teh
Bak kut teh is a popular meal throughout Malaysia (and Singapore) where there are significant Hokkien and Teochew communities. It is a pork rib dish, cooked in a tasty herbal broth. Indeed, the name ‘Bak Kut Teh’ (from the Hokkien dialect) simply means ‘meat bone tea’.
There are various styles of this pork soup that we’ll address shortly. Firstly, however, we should know that basically this dish entails slowly cooking pork ribs over a period of hours in an intricate broth of herbs and spices. For example, these might include some or all of the following: star anise, cinnamon, cloves, fennel seeds, dong gui, yu zhu, ju zhi, dang shen/tong sum, chuan xiong, shu di huang/lo sok tei, gan cao (liquorice root), white peppercorn, garlic, black dates and goji berries.
Styles and Additional Ingredients
Additional ingredients such as shitake mushrooms, pork offal, choy sum, and pieces of dried or fried tofu might be added. Moreover, soy sauce (of the light and dark varieties) is added to the broth during the cooking process. The ratio of light/dark soy sauce will depend on the style of bak kut teh being prepared. The Hokkien version (mostly North Peninsula Malaysia) will use more dark soy sauce while the Teochew (South Peninsula Malaysia & Singapore) form is lighter.
The lighter coloured broth has a more peppery taste while the darker bak kut teh soups tend to be sweeter and more herbal. In terms of garnish, this too can vary; sliced spring onions, chopped coriander and/or fried shallots may accompany this delightful herbal soup. As a condiment, soy sauce (light or dark) with chopped chilli and minced garlic is most typical.
The Origins of this Herbal Soup
Even within Malaysia there are debates about origin and authenticity. Some claim it is a dish that originated in the Chinese province of Fujian and brought over to Malaysia by the Hokkien diaspora. Others assert that it originates in Klang Valley (a port city not far from Kuala Lumpur) where it was served to ‘coolies’ – a derogatory term to describe labourers; in this case Chinese immigrant port labourers who were in desperate need to boost their dietary intake with a healthy herbal soup.
However, the competing claims are not necessarily contradictory. It could be the case that bak kut teh found itself on the Malaysian peninsular from the Chinese coastal city of Fujian. For instance, one man had claimed he brought the recipe from Fujian in the 1940s. Nevertheless, he was gainsaid by a Chinese physician (sinseh) in Klang who declared that he invented the herbal soup in the 1930s!
Whatever the truth, the connection to Klang Valley is strong: at the end of 2008 five local Klang sellers worked together (with the Klang Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry) to cook the biggest ever bowl of bak kut teh with a diameter of 182.88cm and 91.44cm in height. So big was this bowl that it made it into the Malaysian Book of Records having comprised of half a metric ton of pork, with almost equal proportion (450 kilograms) of soup and 50 kilograms of herbal medicine.
As is already clear, this satisfying and diverse pork herbal soup comes in a variety of styles. The Hokkien version typically uses a range of herbs and soy sauce that produces an aromatic dark soup while the Teochew Bak Kut Teh is more peppery and lighter in colour. However, the Hokkien word bak (肉) means “meat”, but meat in Teochew is “nek”. This therefore lends further support to the assertion that Bak Kut Teh is originally a Hokkien dish.
Other kinds of ‘bak kut teh’ have emerged over recent years including ‘chik kut teh’, made with chicken instead of pork. Some of these are halal, enabling Muslims to enjoy the pleasures of this herbal broth. Also, vegan and vegetarian versions of bak kut teh are springing up in Malaysia, using ingredients such as Oyster Mushrooms rather than pork or chicken.
Bak Kut Teh in Ipoh
It is claimed that Bak Kut Teh in Ipoh deviates from the “pure” Hokkien version with its thick, strong, dark broth and fat meat. It is alleged the Ipoh style is lighter and clearer, positioning itself between the Hokkien and Teochew broths. At IpohGo, we dispute this. It’s true you can find this middling variety in Ipoh but you will have no problem whatsoever finding the rich, dark and strong Hokkien versions or the lighter Teochew variety.
The truth is, like most dishes, there is no preferred style in Ipoh. It all comes down to personal preference. But one thing is for certain, whatever your favourite style is, Ipoh will not disappoint.