Outram Park Ya Hua Bak Kut Teh: A Short History Lesson on Bak Kut Teh!

With Liverpool, carnineviand and Bashful Hunter

I am just beginning to realise how I have taken for granted so many of the hawker foods that we enjoy in Singapore. When you talk about what food is uniquely Singaporean, most people will say Chilli Crab but have difficulty naming the rest. That's because we assume that Chinese food or Malay food is either from China or Malaysia and Indonesia. When you get into the history of Singapore Food, you suddenly realise just what a rich heritage we have. Amongst them are Indian Rojak, Chicken Rice, Hokkien Mee, Laksa and Chwee Kueh just to name a few. Yes, all these foods were invented right here in Singapore.

I was pleasantly surprised to find out last week that Bak Kut Teh is a Singapore invention too! At least according to Mr Frankie Gwee from this Bak Kut Teh stall. He told me in no uncertain terms that Bak Kut Teh actually started around the Clarke Quay/River Valley area back in the post war years. Back then, the Chinese coolies used to offload sacks of rice and other goods which was backbreaking work. The two rival clans were the Teochews and the Hokkiens who would compete with each other for work. Since the men needed to eat stuff that would boost their energy, one enterprising Teochew man started selling soup made from boiling Pork Bones with garlic and pepper. Thus was born the Bak Kut Teh. And yes, it is a Teochew invention. Of course, the Hokkiens did not want to lose out, so they also came up with their own version of Bak Kut Teh which was darker and used other herbs. (Ok, I think I might have just reignited the clan rivalry between Teochews and Hokkiens with this!)

I found the soup here very good. Robust but not overly peppery, it has got a sweet savory taste that comes from boiling the pork bones until they are almost crumbly. That's when all the rich stuff from the marrow gets released into the soup. We found the ribs here cooked until it is very nice and tender too. 4.5/5

Actually Bak Kut Teh is not very healthy since it is so rich in Cholesterol. That's why drinking tea actually does help to cleanse the palate. However, I am not sure how much it does to lower the cholesterol levels in the blood. But as Frankie tells me, one of the renown heart surgeons at SGH is a regular customer there and he frequently downs 7 bowls of soup! (So who am I to argue with a heart surgeon?)

I also like the peanuts here. It is braised till it is soft and sweet but the skin is still intact. This stall also sells a few dishes that are quite unique. One is the Mee Sua which you can order in place of rice. It was ok, but Mee Sua is not my thing. (I always thought that Mee Sua was for people without teeth, since my late Grandma used to love Mee Sua) I personally prefer my bowl of hot Bak Kut Teh soup with a big bowl of You Char Kway!

The unique thing about Bak Kut Teh is the fact that to make all the different dishes, all they need is the one Bak Kut Teh soup! They add it to Cabbage, Tang Orh, Mee Sua and then market it as a separate dish. Another dish that is quite unique here is the Fish Soup, which is essentially Sliced Striped Snake Head fish in Bak Kut Teh soup. Though it is the same soup stock the soup takes on a new character from the taste of the fish. The fish is very fresh (what do you expect from a Teochew Ah Hia?) and its a good alternative if you want to cut down on cholesterol. 4/5

I must make special mention of the service here which is a world of difference from the other famous Bak Kut Teh stall. Frankie is extremely hospitable and even came by to show us the right way to drink tea. People who have been there can attest to the great service he provides for all his customers. Having lost his right eye (and nearly paralysed) from a motorcycle accident years ago, he is thankful for his second chance in life. You might have read that he had donated a large sum of money to help the family of the man who jumped in front of the MRT train. When Donald Tsang could not get a seat at Ng Ah Sio, guess who specially opened the shop at night to provide a bowl of Bak Kut Teh for the famous politician? You might think that he did it for publicity, but I think that he did it because it was the right thing to do. He also just returned from New York where he was part of the team of Singaporean Hawkers that KF Seetoh brought there to showcase Singapore food. He gets my vote for "Ambassador for Singapore Hawker Food".


Great Bak Kut Teh with great service to boot. There might be people who would contest the history of Bak Kut Teh. Some people believe that it originated from the Klang Valley in Malaysia. I think that for the Teochew version at least, Bak Kut Teh is a truly Singaporean dish, which might explain why so many politicians are coming to specially to eat it here!

Outram Park Ya Hua Rou Gu Char
No 7 Keppel Road #01-05/07
PSA Tanjong Pagar Complex
Frankie Gwee
7am to 3pm, 6pm to 4am
Closed on Mondays


eerational said...

Mmm yes the fish is superbly fresh. Eating it with the plain rice brings out the sweetness of the fish that I haven't found anywhere else. Did you try the braised meat (dao you ba?) there too? Just got to love how tender it is.
Also, you didn't mention that they refill your soup for free (or do they do that at other places too? I have no idea since I don't eat at other bak kut teh places, hehe.) and their many many photos of all the celebrities who have been there. I'm always very amused by all the photos.
And oh yeah, some of the dishes (especially the fish) might be sold out if you go there too late, especially the weekends. I know, because I've been disappointed before...
Hmmm am very tempted now, time to go bug my parents to bring us there for lunch on Sunday, hehe ;)

Anonymous said...

you should take bak kut teh with mee swa! because the mee swa absorbs the flavour of the soup better, and the soft, sightly mushy texture goes well with the tender meat. And mee swa has a taste of it's own as well, unlike rice which is quite bland.

And I have a health question. I am going to penang to visit my mother soon, and she likes to bring me to eat hawker food there. But I am concerned about putting on too much weight. Does it help if I eat lightly for a few weeks after eating all that unhealthy hawker food, or is it too late to help?

ieat & itreat said...

Learn to appreciate food. Enjoy the taste of the food rather than the quantity. Don't eat stuff that is not nice so that you can save up calories for the good stuff. Don't overdo it because it is easier to put on weight than lose it. Instead of eating then losing weight, try losing some weight first before you go! If you can't lose weight now, what makes you think you can lose it later?

VB said...

I went to this Ya Hua BKT on one of my visits back (as mentioned to u and u asked me for exact location - luckily I didn't tell u) but apparently, it is not the same as the one u featured. The one I went to is located at a building with the words "Isetan Havelock Rd" (near River Valley) and the sign does not hv "Outram Park" on it but the rest is the same wording. So I definately went to the wrong place...now I know why it tastes the way it did : (

Damien said...

The Ya Hua BKT at Outram (opposite Isetan Building) is overpriced and overrated.

Caters mostly to the Zouk crowds :)Was my usual grub during my clubbing days.

sumosumo said...

did u also know that Fish Head Curry is also invented in Singapore - and hence should be considered Singapore Food?

Cos in the old days, the indian coolies couldn't afford to eat fish, so they would take the parts the colonial masters threw away to cook with curry. Obviously the angmohs dont eat the fish head, hence thats how fish head curry was invented.

Alot of the hawker food you get these days, were born from invention and necessity as people in those days were poor, and had to make the best of the limited resources they had to make their food delicious.

Eg: Fish head curry, teo chew muay, bak kut teh, char kway teow... etc etc..

liverpool1965 said...

used to frequent them when they were at the original Outram Park Place. And the friendly boss more often than not goes around toting your bill. The soup just has the right amount of peppery taste and not too much garlicky taste.

Anonymous said...

yummylicious.... my favourite bak kut teh stall with the right attitude(no need to see the 'color' of the service staff) and fantastic taste. Usually eats there at least once a month.

fatme said...

Just ate Ya Hua BKT at PSA,it's good.The Ter Ka was dispointing.You should try Rong Cheng at Sing Ming Rd it's as good as you can get among the best around.

Anonymous said...

i am not so sure that chicken rice and laksa are singaporean in origin - especially the chicken rice

as for BKT, i also don't think so. this wikipedia article briefly mentions the dish is reported to have been invented in Port Klang for port coolies there in the early 20th century, to supplement their meagre diet and as a tonic to boost their health


Anonymous said...

just a continuation from my earlier comment on the origins ..

this article http://www.foodvenue.com/content/tips/T020011_Bkt.asp mentions that Bak Kut Teh was invented by a gentleman from Quanzhou of the Fujian province in China. The secret recipe was passed to a friend who later went to Klang and became the first person to commercialise and sell Bak Kut Teh

ieat & itreat said...

Yes I know that story too. But Mr Gwee grew up in the River Valley area and that is what he knows about our Teochew version of Bak Kut Teh.

Marvin said...

Well..YaHua BKT has 2 stalls actually. The one at PSA is by Frankie while the one at Isetan Havelock is by his sister. There is a slight difference in the taste of their soup. It's a very subtle difference. They are both peppery and have hints of sweetness. Probably Frankie's soup is more refined in taste and hence more people prefer Frankie's stall.

Another key factor in ordering a good bowl of BKT is to make sure you get the best cut of the ribs, usually marked by the chinese character of "Zhen4"(which means righteous).
If you visit Frankie on Sunday, you might get free deserts too.

Vitis Vinifera said...

Yes, the service is good, the attitute is very good too.

I do find that the soup is a little too pepperly for me....guess taste are subjective.

Anonymous said...

I happen to eat Ya Hua Bak kut teh quite often at both Havelock Road (Isetan Building) and Keppel Road. Both are quite similar with some subtle differences in the taste of the soup.

During my recent visit to the Havelock branch, chatting with the staff revealed that the boss of the business, ie, both branches is actually Ah Hua, Frankie's elder sister. Ah Hua was the one who started the business at Outram Park about 20 years ago and is running the Havelock branch.

Apparently, Frankie is no longer working at Keppel and Ah Hua's younger sister, is in charge there.

The service at both branches is good, though i personally prefer Havelock as the staff serve the food faster and are friendlier.

Tip: When ordering at the Havelock branch (Isetan Building), you can ask for the best cut, ie, prime ribs, by telling the staff you want "Zheng". The prime ribs will cost more than the normal pork ribs. Friends of mine who are more health concious will ask for leaner parts. You can also ask for the not-so-spicy soup, though i would highly recommend the norm.

lujia (路加) said...

So many years I did not eat the BKT, because do not want to eat pork, but not long ago, I went to Ng Ah Sio, PSA Tanjong Pagar Complex and Havelock Ya Hua to try.
I like Tanjong Pagar Ya Hua BKT more compared to Ng Ah Sio one, especially the fish soup. I will eat the fish soup with mee sua next time. Thanks ieat.

Anonymous said...

I was fan of bkt. Tasting bkt for almost 30 years. My first bkt stall was at Jalan beserh NEW WORLD. And that was Ng Ah Sio old stall. bkt was found / inverted in singapore. Here's the story told by my late grandpa. Back in 18s There's one chinese coolies who works in boat quay collected some spices that he found on the streets. Pepper, star anise, cinnamon etc. These are spices from India, Indonesia & sri lanka. And he added those spice to the daily pork rib soup he cooked and share with his fellow room mates. Its true that the recipe was brought to malaysia and even siam by some others coolies. But from the spice that was used in the soup, it can tell it was orgin from singapore, cos klang port was only open in 19s, and Singapore was a free port to trade for chinese,indians,malays, indonesian etc. But one thing I dare to say BKT can really represents Singapore where races united to make good soup. Pepper & star anise from india, cinnamon from indonesia (malay) & garlic from china.....

ieat said...

That's a great piece of info. When you say 18s you mean 1800's right?

Anonymous said...

Bak Kut Teh in Malaysia is the best and original recipe. Singapore BKT is nothing but pepper soup.
Some are fake Chinaman imitation no were close to BKT - bitter smelly pepper soup.

The one closest to Malaysian BKT was in Lorong 24 Geylang, but now non existant after the owner died in the 1990's.

The best BKT is in Salak South, Balakong turnoff (KL). They use raw garlic - you loadin the amount you prefer and min pepper (you can add to taste by yourself). My wife downed six bowls one shot, for someone who do not ususlly drink BKT.

As for SG BKT, I went to one in Jalan Besar, after that my lips and nose were numb and swollen due to the unbelievable amount of pepper they put inside.

I'll try this stall to check-it-out.

ieat said...

Oh please don't. It is the peppery one that most Singaporeans like, so you might not like it.

Anonymous said...

cannot make it la

too expensive for that kind of meal

shld try the one at rangoon road

Anonymous said...

yes cant make it very ex

shld try the one in sin ming road

Anonymous said...

not value for money

David Tong said...

I started patronizing this place the past couple of weeks and the food (BKT) is indeed very good and the soup base is superb for pepper-lovers like myself, but if I must gripe about something is their staff, including the owner himself's attitude towards non-Chinese speakers...

I called on his staff and himself 3x last friday just to ask about our order updates and they all give you that puzzled 'i can't speak english' look and leaves you alone hanging.

Frankie was the worse, as I physically look Chinese (I am, but Cantonese and I don't speak mandarin, but can understand), he just angrily blurted "xiang wah yu ma?" and I said no in English, he just waved his hand and left us hanging... Quite rude, but typical.

Hong Wai Mark said...

I promise myself not to try any bak kut teh in Singapore after tried once near to Bugis junction. It doesnt seem like bak kut teh to me but just a bowl of pepper soup. It just undermine my love to Bak Kut Teh.

Clement said...

A real rip-off.........very, very expensive for just 3 miserable pieces of bk, probably from a "Kobe Pig"


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