Singaporeans do prefer the local pepper and garlic version of Bak Kut Teh! Our recent facebook poll showed that 60% of Singaporeans prefer our local Teochew style Bak Kut Teh to the Herbal style which is more popular in Malaysia. I guess that explains why so many of our Bak Kut Teh stalls have chosen to serve the pepper and garlic style soup. What is not so easy to explain is why there doesn’t seem to be any Singapore style Bak Kut Teh in Malaysia even though so many of our overseas visitors seem to prefer our style of Bak Kut Teh. According to my Japanese foodie friend, most of his friends in the Japanese community prefer the clear peppery version to the black herbal version as they don’t like the strong herbal taste, preferring the natural taste of the pork broth. This is of course, in line with the Japanese philosophy of appreciating the natural flavours in foods rather than to mask it with lots of seasoning.
Among our local hawker cuisine, Bak Kut Teh is about as close as you can get to the Japanese way of eating. Essentially only three ingredients are required in this broth. Pork, garlic and pepper. But as you all know, it is the simplest things that are often the hardest to master. It is easier to make the Herbal style soup at home because all you really need is a packet of good herbal mix. We cook it all the time at home and it is as simple as boiling some pork ribs with a teabag of herbs. But it is not so easy to make a good Singapore Teochew style Bak Kut Teh at home.
In order to have a good Bak Kut Teh that is “A1 Kik Kek” (The Best of the Best), the broth and the meat are cooked separately and you need a good amount of pork ribs and a long slow simmering boil in order to coax all that natural pork flavour out of the meat and bones. The resulting soup base contains all the essence of the pork and the really good Bak Kut Teh stalls will always have a pot of leftover bones and meat from which the soup base is cooked.
The Pork ribs are cooked separately in a pot of soup which is boiling away furiously. The trick here is to get the pork to the stage where it is just cooked so that the texture is tender and the meat reverberates when you chew on it. Here is where the garlic and pepper are also added and after the pork is cooked, this broth is then added to the slow cooked stock in order to produce a Bak Kut Teh soup which is slightly cloudy but velvety smooth with a satisfying pepper punch at the beginning and a natural sweetness at the end. 4.5/5
They serve two styles of Pork Ribs here and if you don’t specify, you will be given Pai Gu (排骨) which is the bit of the rib cage further away from the backbone. This is less fatty than the prized Long Gu (龙骨) which is nearer the backbone. If you love pork, you will no doubt go for the Long Gu, as the meat is thicker, more tender and the flavour really develops in your mouth because of the extra bit of fat. You can tell it is the Long Gu because the cross-section of the bone is round instead of flat. The other little tip about the difference between the Pai Gu and Long Gu is this. Their Long Gu is fresh pork from Indonesia whereas the Pai Gu is frozen pork from Brazil, so that extra $1 you pay for Long Gu really is worth it if you love pork and are not on a strict low fat diet!
Aside from the Bak Kut Teh, they also serve quite a few sides dishes here. One of the popular side dishes to go with Bak Kut Teh are pig trotters which is a favorite amongst the Teochew Ah Hia and Ah Sohs. (Uncles and Aunties). In case you have not already been up to speed on Pig Trotters, they are actually touted as the latest Anti Aging superfood because of its high collagen content! Just make sure you go for the tendons and skin and avoid the layer of fat under the skin! I like my trotters to be cooked till the skin is soft and gelatinous and the braising sauce is all sticky due to the dissolved collagen. Unfortunately, the trotters here have not gotten to that stage, so it is a little more firm. Maybe it is just a fresh batch. If it had cooked a little longer it would have been marvelous as the braising sauce was actually quite good. Aside from that, I found that in general, the sides like the Chye Buay and Tau Kee are all quite good and worth ordering. 4/5
If you have a bigger group of friends, they also have dishes which are prepared ala minute. One which I would highly recommend is their Fish Head Bittergourd. The flavour is robust, complex and well balanced and makes for something that goes very well with rice 4.5/5
I was amazed that the owners here are so passionate about providing a good meal that they even bother to make their own You Char Kway! They tell me that the ones they buy sometimes reeks of overused oil. So they did some research and started making their You Char Kway fresh! So, if you get to the shop by 10am, you will get fresh piping hot You Char Kway with your Bak Kut Teh. However, before 10am, they will still be serving You Char Kway that has been outsourced.
One last tip before I end this post. The best time to eat Bak Kut Teh here is 11am in the morning. If you eat early in the morning, the soup will not be as robust and the fresh You Char Kway is not ready. If you eat in the evening, the soup is very robust BUT they would have run out of Long Gu. So the best time to eat is 11am when the soup is sufficiently flavourful, the You Char Kway is fresh and you get the best pick of the pork ribs!
Eating Bak Kut Teh is not just about getting a bowl of soup with some rice. It is the whole experience of sitting at the coffeeshop, ordering your pot of Tea, enjoying your Bak Kut Teh with You Tiao and picking on the side dishes while discussing the problems of public transport with some kakis. This place has all that, plus a bowl of soup that might be simple but very passionate!
Old Tiong Bahru Bak Kut Teh