A soup called Bak Kut Teh!


The mercury dipped significantly in the past few days and soon we’ll be seeing temperature below 30 F in Virginia. Days like this make you want to just cozy up at home and eat something brothy and hot. I knew exactly what I wanted – Bak Kut Teh – that legendary concoction served at hawker stalls in Penang, Malaysia. It is traditionally made with spareribs, tofu skins, dried shitake mushrooms, bulbs of garlic and an herb packet that will flavor and tinge the broth in a rich dark brown color.

I have never tasted this soup before. But one look at Chubby Hubby’s blog late last year had me obsessing about this pork bone soup for over a year now. Yes, it’s one of those dishes. A dish that you have never tasted but having seen it in a perfectly composed photograph and reading an accompanying ode to it – you are forever bonded to the promise of a soul-satisfying soup.

Hope came through the lovely Bee -she has the recipe on her delicious blog, Rasa Malaysia. There was one problem- a spice packet of Bak Kut Teh herbs was required and it was not a simple one that you can go to your local supermarket to put together. But the food blog world is very helpful and Bee offered to get me a couple of Bak Kut Teh herb packets next time she visits Penang.

Early November, I got a message from Bee that she was back and she had my Bak kut teh packets! To say that I was thrilled was an understatement when the package had arrived. As I opened the box, the scent of licorice immediately hit me and I raised one bag to my nose to further inhale this familiar smell that I have missed so much from my growing up years.

And then the sight of goji berries, also known as wolfberries, transported me back to my childhood days when my dad always made what he called “beef muscle meat soup with 7 herbs.”  One of the 7 herbs/spice was the goji berry. I was prone to the usual cold weather health problems and the soup had medicinal properties that would improve stamina and resistance against the chilly season. My dad would seat me down at the table and made sure I finished my soup without cheating (I think one time I ran into the kitchen and dumped everything in the garbage when I thought no one was looking).

“ You don’t have to eat the meat, just drink the soup.” He would say. The soup did not taste bad at all; it was just that when I was a child all I wanted was fried food.

Hmm…I wonder if Bak Kut Teh have health properties too? 

The ingredients of the herb packet are in their Chinese name so I will list them as is:

  • Kui Chee Phean
  • Chuan Xiong
  • Gan Cao
  • Qi Zi
  • Shu Di
  • Tong Wei Phan
  • Dang Shen
  • Yok Kui

This pot of hearty goodness is so easy to put together. You basically throw everything into the pot – the herbs go into an herb pouch or I guess you can fashion one with cheese cloth- cover the ingredients with water about 4 to 5 cups, bring to a boil and then simmer for about 2 hours. At first I was tempted to put a lot of soy and salt in it but then I remembered that this was supposed to be a soup. So I tasted it again, and that’s when I discerned the subtle flavors of the herbs/spices. After the seasoning of salt, soy, oyster sauce and white pepper I let the pot simmer for another 20 minutes.

Dinnertime could not have come sooner. I eagerly ladled the soup, some mushrooms and falling-off-the-bone pork ribs on my awaiting plate of steaming white rice. After that first bite, I understood right away why this dish is the stuff of hawker legends. The broth is infused with a flavor that is not overpowering but so addictive – slurping is definitely required. The pork ribs in the meantime have been transformed into quite the guilty pleasure of fat and fork-tender meat. I did find that a little dab of fish sauce here and there threw this dish further over the top delicious!

Can you all tell I am still in awe of what I had just eaten?

The only ingredient that was missing was the tofu puffs. I was not able to make a trip to the Asian supermarket and tried to make do with baking some extra-firm tofu – uh that didn’t turn out so well. I did not fry them because the last time I tried that I ended up with a lot of oil splatter on the wall that did not please the “Hungry” Hubby at all.

I’ll be sure to include that the next time I make Bak Kut Teh, which will be in two weeks. I think I’ll also add some bean curd sheets, I think they will go very well with the meat bone soup.

For those of you that have the Bak Kut Teh herbs available in your area, the recipe and a wonderful collage of the ingredients are on Bee’s blog.

And Bee, I know you just got back, but I hope next year, before winter you will make a trip again to Penang, for I know I will be running out of my stash of Bak kut teh herbs by then.