iPhoneOgraphy – 20 Aug 2016 (Day 233/366)
Bak-kut-teh (also spelt bah-kut-teh; Chinese: 肉骨茶; Peh-ōe-jī: bah-kut-tê) is a meat 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 the Sumatra, Indonesia and Southern Thailand.
The name literally translates 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.
Bak kut teh is usually eaten with rice or noodles (sometimes as a noodle soup), and often served with youtiao / cha kueh [yau char kwai] (strips of fried dough) for dipping into the soup. Soy sauce (usually light soy sauce, but dark soy sauce is also offered sometimes) is preferred as a condiment, with which chopped chili padi and minced garlic is taken together. 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 a herbal soup dish developed in Malaya among Hokkien immigrant communities. It is popularly thought to have originated in Klang, where it was claimed that a Chinese sinseh developed the dish in the 1930s. The Teochew variant was developed in Singapore and was sold in the Clarke Quay and River Valley areas after World War II. The dish is reported to supplement the meagre diet of port coolies and as a tonic to boost their health. 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.
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.