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.


24 thoughts on “A soup called Bak Kut Teh!

  1. nothing beats a bowl of Bak Kut Teh on a cold night! If I go back to Malaysia and Singapore for Chinese New Year, I can get some for you…

  2. Oooooh, I am so glad you made it and finally tasted the famed BKT from Malaysia!

    No problem, I will buy you as many packets as you wanted the next time I go home. As you can see, the BKT I got for you is not the mass production soup packets (there are many in the markets), it's hand-picked by this very old Chinese medical/herbal soup in Georgetown, Penang. My friend introduced it to me and I never looked back on those mass productions supermarket-friendly BKT packets anymore!

    You have gotta put the tofu puffs, really, and the next time, make yourself the dipping sauce for the meat, etc.

    3-4 bird's eyes chilies (cut)
    1 tablespoon Indonesia Kecap Manis
    1 tablespoon soy sauce


  3. Veron, Sitting in an airport in chilly Seattle your soup sounds so divine. It's made totally incredible by things like "so addictive – slurping is definitely required" and leaves me drooling.

  4. I've never had BKT, but from your description I could almost taste it in my mind. And I could only imagine how good the pork would be when dipped in Rasa's dipping sauce.

  5. Thanks Mandy. You just confirmed what I have just said about the food blog world – terrific people!
    Hi Bee – I am ordering the Kecap Manis right away…definitely putting the tofu puffs next time!
    Hi Tanna – I'd send you a bowl of hot soup if I could!
    Hi Cynthia – there's nothing like making a dish with all the right ingredients.
    Hi Anh – your future MIL is right!
    Yeh Marvin – just by the description , bak kut teh surely can get you obsessed!
    Hi Jaden – there is nothing like a mother's cooking…specially if it is like a soup like Bak kut teh!

  6. oh BKT is one of my favourite dish, now they came up with dry BKT which I think so-so only still prefer the BKT with soup. I also found a BKT whereby the soup is white in color rather dark in Kepong KL!

  7. Never had it, but I know this is going on the list of dishes I want you to make me when I come visit one day (cassoulet and confit being the others :)) Looks amazing!

  8. I remember seeing this at the hawker stalls in Penang. I don't eat pork, so I never tasted it, but now from your description I can get a sense of the aroma and complexity of this soup. I hope you get to Penang some day to experience it in place.

  9. Veron – your description is making me salivate! I can just imagine what it was like, especially because it got so cold this weekend. Amazing how the smell of spices brings back such childhood memories as well.

  10. Hi Veron,
    Bak Kut Teh is the pride and joy of many kitchens in Singapore, many with recipes passed down a few generations. Alas, I don't eat pork, so I will never be able to enjoy it, but I've seen my friends greedily slurp the rich flavoursome broth. 🙂


  11. Hi Veron,
    What a coincidence! we're having Bak Kut Teh for dinner tomorrow! It's a family favourite – it's the ultimate comfort food, wouldn't you say? I add tofu puffs to mine and serve the soup with some crispy chinese creullers ( yao char kwai). If I'm not feeling too lazy, I'd make some yam rice to go with it too ;o)

  12. Maybe you can help me out with something…? I want to order all of my food online from now on because of various reasons, but I don’t know where to go for quality food. I have tried 2 companies so far, Fresh Dining, and Celebrity Foods, but I wanna get others I can try out. Do you know of any? The main thing I’ve ordered so far is steak. I guess you can say, I’m a steak junkie. LOL!!! From what I have found out (from what I have ordered so far) I think I am able to regulate the quality of beef I buy. I hate going to a store and getting that crappy slab of beef that I have to cut down until there is like nothing left. Hahaha!!!! (its so true though) Anyhow, sorry that I made this comment so long. If you can help me out or point me in a direction where I might find more quality foods online, I would greatly appreciate it. Have a good day or night! (depending on when you read this) LOL!!!!

  13. hi can any one help l am trying to find bak kut teh herbal soup spices that l bought in Malaysia its in a blue packet with the words SERBUK REMPAH
    written on it can any get me a web address of the company who sells it please will be very gratful Regards Pat.

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