Auntie Ruby's Bak Kut Teh

Monday, August 20, 2012

I love Bak Kut Teh. And the version I like most is the one I grew up eating - my Mum's.

Eaten with a bowl of steaming and fluffy white rice, the BKT meal is always a special occasion. Occasionally there will be an additional green veg dish but most times, it is a BKT-only dinner. Auntie Ruby would use pork ribs, pork belly, fried tofu pok (bean curd), button mushrooms (canned ones) and occasionally, she may add intestines.

And the first thing you do when the meals starts is to slurp a few spoonfuls of soup. The pork rib meat is tender enough but not falling off the bone. Dip the rib into dark soy sauce with sliced red chilis and enjoy.

I have earlier memories of my Mum's visit to the Chinese medicine shop to gather the herbs ("chup yok"). Just say you need the herbs to make BKT and the medicine seller would know what to do. I doubt the ones today will know how to do so. As commercially packed BKT herbs are widely available these days, few venture into these medicine halls to assemble them "from scratch."

In latter years, my Mum used the A1 brand. She will add more herbs (i.e. Thong Sum, Yoke Chook, Thng Kwai Pin) to enhance the taste.

I have made this myself a few times. It takes under an hour to cook. The smell of BKT herbs is unmistakable and it will fill your home.

BKT is basically pork rib soup. Whether you are opting for the more herbal Hokkien variety or the peppery Teo Chew version, you can make a good BKT at home using these pre-mixes. What you want is a nice clean broth and pork ribs pieces that still have a bite on it and tasty, i.e the life has not been boiled out of them. Don't overcook the pork.

There are finer steps you can add to make the BKT more "gourmet." If you cook your broth carefully, it can be consommé-like, clear and smooth. If it has all kinds of pieces floating on your bowl, it interferes with the enjoyment of the broth.

Another step you can take is to is to gather the herbs yourself. Or you can start with a pre-mix and add additional items to adjust the taste. For home cooking, I will advise to keep it simple. Use a good pre-mix and just focus on getting the broth clear and the meat done just right. My favourite, by far, is Petaling Jaya's YiXinGe BKT pre-mix and I store a few packs of this at home. It has strands of ginseng in it which may be too bitter for some. Just remove them if you prefer. With experience and awareness of how each herb contributes to the taste (take a bite), you can adjust your mix.

The ingredients in the pre-mix: Angelicae sinensis, Polygonatum Odoratum,
Cinnamomum, Pepper, Ginseng, Glycyrrhiae Preparata and spices.
Now commit that to memory!
This pic is from their sales website in S'pore. Check here
I will outline the traditional pot-boiling method. And then, some additional notes for the Sous Vide method. I know the latter sounds avant gande but it is basically 'slow and low' cooking. I like to use it as it gives me better control. It is a click-&-forget thing and I can set it up before I go to work.  I am assured that the meat comes out just right with a good bite to it. The temperature sensor is cooking safe and you can just stick it into the soup.

This post is called Auntie Ruby's BKT but I am not sure this recipe can be attributed to her as I am using a different pre-mix. But this recipe is certainly inspired by her. Further down, I have inserted a photoshot of her recipe.

Bak Kut Teh Recipe

2 kg of pork ribs (chopped into 2-3 inch pieces)
1 kg of pork belly (in unsliced strips - see photo)
1 packet of YiXinGe or A1 BKT pre-mix
3 bulbs of unpeeled garlic
salt and soy sauce
1 Tbsp dark soy sauce
Chicken stock concentrate
4 litres of water
  1. Blanch pork and rinse of the scum
  2. Boil the water and add the garlic and herbal mix for 20 minutes
  3. Add the ribs and the pork belly strips.
  4. Lower the fire and simmer gently. From time to time, skim off the scum if it floats to the surface. 
  5. After half an hour, check the meat to ensure it is tender enough. At this point you have to decide what you prefer. Remember that it is not just about texture as over cooking the meat will make it less sweet and flavorful.
  6. If it is, switch of the fire and remove the pork pieces (ribs and the pork belly chunks). 
  7. Strain the broth to remove the herbs and make the broth clearer. You can also run the filtered broth again through a muslin cloth (or the cloth thing which you make kopi-o with) if you want your soup to be even clearer. 
  8. Reheat the broth and adjust to taste with soy sauce, some sugar, dark soy sauce and chicken stock. Use a flat strainer to remove the fats which rises to the top. This is your 'master stock" with which you can redistribute for the separate pots of ribs, pork belly, tofu pok etc. At this stage, you can carefully adjust the taste of the broth and make sure the meats are cooked just right (if the pieces are hard, cook further)   
  9. Use some of the broth to heat up the tau fu pok and serve separately.
  10. Use some of the broth and put in the slices of pork belly (about 1 cm thick and 5 cm wide) and serve in a separate pot.  
Serve the BKT in covered claypots or pyrex pot dishes so that the soup remains hot on the dining table. Or you can serve the bowls individually and some extras in a claypot at the center of the dining table.

The Sous Vide Method
  1. I use the rice cooker for this. Do steps 1-3 in it i.e. boil the herbs and garlic.
  2. Then fix the cooker to the SV Magic  controller and cook for 6 hours at 76°C.
  3. At the end of it, the meat should have cooked just right. You will still need to filter the soup through to get a clearer broth.
Auntie Ruby's Recipe

My Mum uses A1 pre-mix and added her own herbs. Check out this photoshot of her printed recipe

    A blanched batch of frozen spareribs and fresh ones some from the wet market.  
    Pork belly is yums with BKT
    Removing the fats which rises to the top when the broth is heated with
    a flat strainer 
    Pork Belly Slices
    With Tau Pok
    Serve your BKT with some coriander leaves on it, good bowls of fluffy and steaming white rice and sliced chilis in soy sauce and dark soy sauce. And of course, with some good concentrated Chinese tea. Some like to add Chinese shitake mushroom but I find it's taste overpowering.

    While the home cooked version may not be as good as those in some dedicated BKT restaurants (they add soup bones, msg etc), done right, you can be very happy with it. And since you are paying a lot less and have heaps of pork ribs in it, you do not need to compete for the single piece of long king rib which eateries will showcase in a bowl along with other inferior cuts.

    Commercially, the standard of BKT in some eateries have gone down due to the cost of pork as a result of the ban on Malaysian pork. Locals here are not used to the taste of Australian or Brazillian pork. Cooking at home, I suggest you use Indonesian fresh pork from the wet markets. Just tell the pork seller that you are cooking BKT and he will know what to do.

    Give this a try. It is not difficult. There are refined steps to learn to make it excellent but using the right pre-mix can get you a very satisfying version at home.

    The YiXinGe BKT pre-mix can be ordered online. Check out their website for details. For customers from Singapore, you may order from this link:

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    1. Hi, is only for invited readers only D=

    2. Lawrence - I notice too. I don't think they are selling that here anymore. I suggest buy A1 and go to medicine shop to ask for the additional herbs as listed in my Mum's recipe