Hot and sour soup. Mapo tofu. La jiao. Dandan noodles. Yuxiang pork shreds. Chinese cooks can scorch the tongue and set the lips atingle so well that it's easy (for a chili addict like myself, anyway) to overlook what they consistently do even better: comfort food. Since moving to Malaysia I've become convinced that when it comes to edible hugs, no one does it better than the Chinese. And for the ultimate in Chinese comfort food, I nominate bak kut teh.
Unappetizingly translated as "meat bone tea", bak kut teh is a Hokkien (from China's southeast Fujian province) soup/stew of pork, spices like black pepper and star anise and cinammon, and Chinese medicinal herbs such as tong sum and kei chee (wolfberries). Now, I've long been of the mind that there's food, and there's medicine, and never the twain should meet. Eating - and feeding others, for that matter - should be about pleasure; injecting a medical purpose into a meal just seems wrong. Bak kut teh boosters make some pretty incredible assertions about this meal-in-a-claypot: it's alleged to cure stomach flu, prevent rheumatism and cancer, boost the immune system, strengthen bones and kidneys, and generally rid the body of toxins, among other things. I'm not sure I buy into the medical legend, but there's no denying the dish is delicious.
I first encountered bak kut teh on Christmas Day in, of all places, Kuantan. On this last evening of our Malaysian east coast eatathon Dave and I were recovering from a grueling 5-hour drive from Kota Baru, most of it in a monsoonal downpour. Neither of us could summon the energy to set off in search of the seafood for which Kuantan is famous, and so we ended up wandering the city's shuttered downtown in search appetizing sustenance. The sign at this simple storefront, with its unmistakable claypot illustration, beckoned.
The owner of this shop wouldn't tell us which herbs and spices she includes in her bak kut teh, and my indelicate palate could be certain only of the presence of white pepper, cinammon, and clove. Five hours of simmering produces a complex, rich broth and pork meat that falls off the bone in tender shreds. In addition to bone-in pork, our claypot included reconstituted dried tofu, fried tofu cubes, and four or five chewy dried shiitake mushrooms, and was crowned with a clump of raw enoki that softened in the broth's steam. Lightly spiced but not bland, simple but not boring, this bak kut teh was as addictive as a bowl of thick-cut, kettle-cooked potato chips; when Dave and I finished not a single drop darkened the bottom of the clay pot. (Delectable also was the shop's velvety soft hot and sour mustard greens, cooked overnight and available only on Sundays and Wednesdays).
Having entered the restaurant exhausted, we left - despite our full bellies - revived, uncertain whether to credit the restorative powers of Chinese herbs or the rush of culinary discovery.
In Malaysia (the dish is common in Singapore as well) the origin of bak kut teh can be traced to Klang, a town about 30 km southwest of KL. Capital of Selangor state until 1880 (when it lost the title to KL) and once center of one of Malaysia's most important tin-mining regions, Klang, starting in the 1800s, attracted huge numbers of employment-seeking southern Chinese immigrants, including natives of Fujian. No Malaysian can pinpoint Klang's bak kut teh ground zero, but few dispute that this bustling town is the place to go to sample the best.
As new devotees, we were eager to dine on bak kut teh at the source. So Sunday, we took to the Federal Highway and, detailed map in hand (thanks HMG!), made our way to Telok Pulai Bak Kut Teh.
Bak kut teh is traditionally a breakfast and - judging from the number of extended families dining at this restaurant - Sunday brunch dish. We ordered a pot for two, one "veggie", and rice, and snagged a plastic container of fried shallots that was making its way around the restaurant to sprinkle over the latter. A plate of youtiao (fried dough sticks; Chinese crullers), cut into 2-inch chunks, arrived with saucers of diced fresh chili and soy sauce.
The veggie - baby bok choy, on this plate - is simply blanched, drizzled with oyster sauce, and sprinkled with fried garlic. Well-prepared, delightfully crunchy, but in the end a mere accompaniment to the main event.
Unlike our Kuantan version, this bak kut teh included three different cuts of pork (thick-cut rib layered with a pleasing amount of fat; lean, boneless loin; and tender pieces of what I'm guessing to be shoulder or rump) and was adorned with several leaves of head lettuce. Mushrooms were few and far between and, in what I would call the restaurant's only misstep, are unmistakeably canned. Fluffy squares of deep-fried tofu and a few large sheets of dried tofu (11 to 3 o'clock in the photo) are likeably chewy and soak up the porky broth.
It is the broth that, without a doubt, is the highlight of TPBKT's version of bak kut teh. Lushly seasoned, unabashedly fatty, thick with miniscule bits of pork, and as dark as coffee, it would make a fine meal even on its own, without adornments. And it's simply glorious sopped up with cruller sponges.
Each clay pot of bak kut teh is assembled to order. As we found out when we ventured back to TPBKT's prep area after lunch, diners can have their bak kut teh assembled not only with specified cuts of meat, but can add on innards as well.
After a pot is packed with pork, mushrooms, and tofu skin it's filled to the brim with broth and set on the fire (opening photo) an brought to a boil. Added to the pot just before it's pulled from the flame, lettuce arrives at the table still crunchy.
I can't yet attest to the veracity of the medical claims made about bak kut teh, but its pull is akin to that of a drug. I couldn't stop thinking about the dish after my maiden meal in Kuantan, and found myself (someone who prefers chili spice and is not especially fond of hot soups in tropical weather) with a fierce craving for another bowl less than twenty-four hours after our lunch in Klang. Simply put, meat bone tea is a dish that - like the the very best comfort foods - satisfies in every possible way.
Kedai Kopi Jalan Besar, B74 Jalan Besar, Kuantan.
Telok Pulai Bak Kut Teh, Klang. Directions: take the Federal Highway to Klang, continue over the river, and pass an Indian temple on your right. Turn right at the first light after the temple (you will now be in a construction zone). Turn left at the first intersection, pass a field on your right, follow the road to a T-section and turn right. At the second traffic light turn right (you will have passed an Economart on your left). Continue straight and take the overpass (not the small road to its left). Note a row of shophouses on your right just as the overpass bottoms out; turn right at the first light to enter. The bak kut teh shop in this post is the one (there are two in the same row) furthest from the traffic light, towards the overpass.
Note: For updated, post-road construction directions please see Moo's comment below.