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What Is Bak Kut Teh?

By Angie Bates
Updated May 16, 2024
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Literally translating as "meat bone tea," bak kut teh is a type of Chinese pork rib soup. While also popular in Taiwan and parts of Indonesia, this soup is especially favored in both Malaysia and Singapore. Traditionally served in a clay pot, bak kut teh was introduced to Malaysia during the 19th century by migrating Chinese. Since it contained many herbs known for their medicinal properties, it was considered not only an energy-giving breakfast, but also a health food. It is most frequently served with Chinese tea, steamed white rice, and dipping sauce.

Many at-home cooks, particularly those not in Asian regions, will use prepacked bak kut teh herbs in place of traditional, fresh herbs. The packaged mixture can often be found at Asian food markets. In addition to licorice root, cinnamon sticks, cloves, and star anise, the herb mixture for this dish also includes several Chinese roots, such as angelica root and chuan xiong, which is part of the carrot family and known for its medicinal properties. Some versions may forgo most of these seasonings, but the majority of versions use them.

Bak kut teh also includes garlic, tofu puffs, and pork ribs. Most recipes also include shiitake mushrooms. Peppercorns, both black and white, are frequently included as well. Bamboo sugar, pork bone, dark soy sauce, and salt are also sometimes included. The ribs may be supplemented with pork belly, and, occasionally, papaya is added.

To make bak kut teh, water is boiled, and usually the meat and garlic are simmered. Some versions will add the seasonings or every ingredient immediately. Others will include only the spices and garlic, as well as the bone and sugar if used, adding the pork meat and most of the other ingredients only after the spices have simmered for a time. The dish is simmered for one or two hours, though some versions may simmer for three. Papaya, if used, is usually added at the end of the cooking process, and mushrooms are sometimes kept fresh and only added after the soup has finished cooking.

Some versions will layer lettuce leaves in a bowl, and add the mushrooms and fried tofu to the leaves. Then the soup is poured over the top. Most versions simply pour the soup into a bowl, usually clay, and serve immediately. Bak kut teh may be garnished with fried shallots or served with a dipping sauce consisting of chilies and soy sauce.

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