John Lee and his wife Sally run Seng Huat, an old bak kut teh shop in Klang. They're two of the nicest people you'd ever want to meet. And their version of this Hokkien Malaysian specialty is pretty fantastic.
'Meat bone tea' (that many Chinese Malaysians mis-translate the dish's characters as 'pork bone tea' tells you a little, I think, about their passion for the other white meat) is comprised of pork (and parts) long-stewed with soy sauce, spices, and Chinese medicinal herbs. It tastes much better than it sounds. Malaysian pork is generally excellent, uber porcine in flavor and nicely fatted, and it marries beautifully with the spices and herbs that go into the dish (black and Sichuan peppercorns, cinammon, star anise, ginseng, goji berries, Chinese foxglove, and dried orange peel, to name a few). Bak kut teh is both tonic and comfort food, plain and simple but, in its spareness, quite elegant.
It's also a somewhat unique dish in that its origins - unlike those of other Chinese Malaysian specialties, such as wonton mee and yong tau foo - can't be traced back to the mainland. It's one hundred percent Malaysian, an invention of Hokkien Chinese (from the southeastern province of Fujian) in Klang, a port city about an hour from Kuala Lumpur.
Over the past couple months we've been researching the dish off and on for an article. After lunching at Yeoh's, a bak kut teh shop behind the Klang Hokkien Association that's a favorite of tour groups from Singapore, we visited with a couple association officials. 'If you want to taste the original bak kut teh,' they said, 'you must go to the shop under the bridge.'
And so, a few weeks ago, we found ourselves at John and Sally's place - which is also known (because Malaysians, notoriously unable to remember street names, locate every famous eatery by landmarks) as 'Under the Bridge Bak Kut Teh'. Seng Huat does indeed sit in the shadow of a pedestrian bridge. And it's in this part of Klang that, allegedly, bak kut teh was born.
John told us that he inherited the business from his dad, who inherited it from his father, who started selling bak kut teh during World War II from a push cart under the bridge. At that time the dish was called simply bak kut - 'pork bones' or, more colloquially, 'pork rib soup' - and it was breakfast for the coolies who loaded and unloaded boats along the river. After the bridge was bombed by the Japanese John's grandfather moved his bak kut stall a few streets over and, eventually, into a shop house. That bak kut teh shop, run by relatives of John's, remains in operation today. In the sixties John's father moved his grandfather's business back 'home' under the bridge, to the corner shop it occupies still.
I'd assumed that the name 'meat bone tea' came about from the way the dish is made, with lots of herbs simmering away for an hour or more to make a dark, tea-colored broth. Not so, John says. His grandfather's name was Lee Boon Teh, and the dish his regular customers called bak kut Teh (or Teh's bak kut, 'teh' being the Hokkien pronunciation of the Chinese character for 'land') eventually became known more generally as bak kut teh ('teh' being the Hokkien pronunciation of the Chinese character for 'tea'). John doesn't claim that his grandfather invented the dish: 'Sure there were other vendors selling meat rib soup and rice to port laborers at the same time he was,' he says.
This isn't a guy who just sells bak kut teh. He lives it, loves it, eats it at least once a day and, from our experience, can discourse on it for a couple hours straight. Seng Huat's version is made according to John's grandfather's recipe, with a (secret - we sniffed the spice bags but didn't peek inside) mixture of ten herbs and spices, Chinese dried mushrooms, and 'black' garlic.
Unless you request a claypot the dish arrives as it was traditionally served, each part of the pig - leg, say, or ribs or stomach - in a separate bowl of soup. Though it now features big chunks of meat and, if you wish, innards, this dish was once poor man's food and incorporated only bits of pork and ribs. Back in the day it was eaten with chopsticks, but nowadays fork and spoon are the utensils of choice - all the better to tear apart those large chunks of meat.
'Meat and soup are important,' says John, 'but rice is also key.' So Seng Huat's is cooked in tasty lard and topped with crunchy fried shallots. The shop's bak kut teh soup is a gorgeous tawny brown and neither too qing (clear and watery) nor too nong ('sticky' or viscous). It's got body and a load of fragrance, with a prominent but not overpowering herbal flavor. Bak kut teh appreciation is highly subjective, but for us Seng Huat's version places the proper emphasis on meat and broth; here you won't find the add-ins (deep-fried tofu, bean curd skin, canned mushrooms) used by many other shops.
John's only thirty-three years old, so Klang residents and anyone else willing to make the drive can look forward to many more years of Seng Huat's bak kut teh. It's invigorating to spend time with a young couple enthused about upholding culinary traditions. 'We work all the time,' John and Sally told us (and they have three kids to boot), 'but we really love what we do.' Folks like them should be considered national treasures.
Seng Huat, No. 9 Jalan Besar, Klang. Breakfast through about 2pm, dinner from 6pm. Be advised - they sell out every day so arrive early to avoid disappointment.