Originating in Klang, just outside Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, bak kut teh means ‘pork bone tea’. It’s basically pork ribs and other cuts in a rich and complex broth of medicinal herbs.
Most people make theirs using pre-packaged spice packs, which is fine, but I much prefer to make my own soup base. Once you make it from scratch once you’ll never go back to the pre-packaged spices.
The medicinal herbs may look confusing, but they are actually quite common ingredients in Chinese cooking. Most of them are available from a good Asian grocery, but I buy mine from a Chinese herbalist which tend to have higher quality herbs. In the recipe below I’ve given you the Mandarin pronunciations and Chinese character translations of all the herbs, so you can just show the herbalist your list.
10 dried shiitake mushrooms, quickly rinsed
2 kg pork belly
1 kg pork ribs
3 whole garlic bulbs
3 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons caster sugar
1 tablespoon white vinegar
2 tbsp soy sauce
1 pack fried tofu puffs (tau pok), halved
300 g enoki mushrooms
6 thin spring onions, very thinly sliced
coriander sprigs, to garnish
cooked rice, to serve
5 sticks youtiao (fried Chinese bread sticks), to serve
sliced bird’s eye chillies, to serve
20 g Codonopsis pilosula (wen tang shen) 纹黨參
20 g Chinese angelica (dang gui) 当归
15 g lovage root (Ligusticum wallichii) (chuan xiong) 川芎
15 g Rehmannia glutinosa (shu di) 熟地
5 slices licorice root (gan cao) 甘草
20 g Solomon’s seal (yu zhu) 玉竹
2 pieces dried tangerine peel (cheng pi) 陈皮
15 g cassia bark (gui bi) 桂皮
3 star anise (ba jiao) 八角
1 teaspoon white peppercorns (bai hu jiao) 白胡椒
Heat 4 litres (135 fl oz/16 cups) water in a stockpot and add the shiitake mushrooms. Turn off the heat and let the mushrooms stand for 20 minutes to soften. Remove the mushrooms, then trim off the stalks using a pair of kitchen scissors. Return the caps to the pot, and place the pot back over the heat.
Wrap the ingredients for the herb pack in a double layer of muslin (cheesecloth), and secure the pack with string. Add to the pot and simmer for 30 minutes.
While the herb pack is simmering, place the pork and ribs in a separate pot and cover with cold water. Bring the water to the boil and simmer for 20 minutes. Remove all the pork from the water and rinse to remove any scum.
Add the pork to the simmering soup base, along with the garlic bulbs, salt, sugar, vinegar and soy sauce. Simmer for about 1 1/2 hours, until the pork is tender, but not falling apart. Remove the pork from the soup and allow to cool slightly.
Add the enoki mushrooms and tofu puffs to the soup and simmer just for 10 minutes, or until both are softened.
Cut the pork into small pieces, and separate the ribs. Add the pork and ribs to a heated serving bowls (a clay pot works well), then ladle the hot broth and mushrooms over. Scatter with the spring onion and coriander sprigs.
Serve with cooked rice, with youtiao and sliced chillies in soy sauce on the side.
Top Tips for Bak Kut Teh
- This is also great served with blanched iceberg lettuce that’s been covered with oyster sauce and scattered with fried shallots.
- If you haven’t tried this dish before you might want to make it from a packet first so you know the kind of thing you should be going for.
- Seasoning the soup is all important for this dish. If the soup is too bitter or sweet it will be unpleasant. Taste the dish constantly and adjust the seasoning incrementally as you go.