Bak Kut Teh
With just a little bit of finesse, a few humble ingredients are transformed into a satisfying and deeply flavorful bowl of soup. There are many variations on bak kut teh, or “meat bone tea,” but the two main camps are the white pepper-heavy Teochew version often associated with Singapore, and the darker Hokkien version, brewed with a range of medicinal herbs and spices, that is more popular in Malaysia. Confusingly, the Hokkienese term “bak kut teh” is the common name for both versions; in Teochew, this dish sounds more like “neh gu deh.”
Bak kut teh origin myths abound. It’s still up for debate what the “teh” refers to — does it indicate the need to pair strong tea with the meaty soup to counteract its richness? Or does it refer to the broth that, similar to tea, is infused with spices? Either way, the soup is near infinitely customizable. This recipe is a stripped down version that really highlights the foundational flavors of Teochew bak kut teh. If you’d like, feel free add some dried shiitake mushroom to infuse the broth, or top the finished soup with sliced scallions or chopped cilantro. As for me, I find beauty in the simplicity of this recipe. With so few ingredients, the details are important. I’ve called for salting the ribs ahead of time to ensure the right texture; toasting the white peppercorns to round out the sharper, more pungent notes; and blanching the ribs for a clearer broth in the end. And, as always, source the best quality ingredients you can.
Serves 6 with steamed rice and side dishes
- 2 lbs pork spare ribs
- 5 tbsp whole white peppercorns
- 6 bulbs garlic
- bird’s eye chilies
- soy sauce
- Cut rib slabs into individual ribs. Liberally salt each piece, as if you were salting a chicken to roast (roughly 2 tsp for 2 lbs). Let salted ribs sit uncovered in the refrigerator, on a wire rack set over a tray, for at least a few hours and up to two days before cooking.
- When you’re ready to cook, add water to a large stockpot (enough to generously cover the ribs) and set it to boil.
- Meanwhile, toast white peppercorns in a dry pan or wok over medium-low heat, swirling occasionally for a few minutes, until fragrant and starting to lightly brown. Turn off heat and transfer peppercorns to a mortar. Grind with a pestle — the more you crush, the stronger the pepper flavor. If you don’t have a mortar and pestle, place peppercorns in a bowl and use a sturdy jar or glass to crush.
- Separate garlic bulbs into cloves, but do not peel. Rinse skin-on garlic cloves.
- Optional step for easier serving: cut a small piece of cheesecloth and bundle peppercorns and garlic gloves inside, tying up the bundle with twine.
- When water in stockpot has come to a boil, add ribs and bring back to a boil, and continue boiling for 5 minutes to remove impurities from bones and meat. After 5 minutes, turn off heat, transfer ribs to a plate, and discard water. If there are visible impurities sticking to the ribs, give them a quick rinse under the faucet.
- Add blanched and rinsed ribs back to the stockpot and add just enough water to cover. Add garlic and peppercorns, and bring to a boil. Once boiling, reduce heat to low and let simmer, covered, for an hour or more until the ribs reach desired level of tenderness. (Traditionally, the ribs are served with a chewier texture, but younger generations of Singaporean diners tend to prefer the meat falling off the bone.)
- Stir in 1 tsp of salt to soup and taste. Add more salt if desired.
- Slice Thai bird’s eye chili into soy sauce for a simple dipping sauce.
- Serve soup with hot rice, a small dish of dipping sauce, and a vegetable side dish for a complete meal.