I had a lot of great food in Singapore and while I couldn't pick a favorite, there were some dishes that stood out: like Biryani at Tanjong Pagar Railway Station, or Hainanese Chicken Rice at Maxwell Hawker Center. One dish that stuck with me throughout the rest of my sojourn in Asia was something I had early one morning at Changi Airport as I was leaving for Japan. I had dreams about it, and all I could think about upon returning home was picking up some spareribs so I could recreate it, before my taste memory faded away.
The Teochew style Bak Kut Teh I had at Changi Airport in Singapore
Bak Kut Teh (肉骨茶) is a spare rib soup that's popular all over Southeast Asia, with several countries claiming to be the originator. The name literally means "meat bone tea", and the generally accepted creation legend is of a laborer from southern China bringing the dish to Klang, Malaysia, where it spread to neighboring Singapore and Indonesia.
I made the Teochew style Bak Kut Teh which seems to be more popular in Singapore (see Davina's comment below). Unlike the Hokkien style Bak Kut Teh, which is darker in color and more heavily spiced, the Teochew variety is prized for its clear peppery broth. For my version I added green papaya and fried shallots, which I realize isn't very traditional, but they add a nice textural and flavor element to the dish.
In a glass cup to demonstrate the clarity
The small number of ingredients and clear soup belies the robust flavour in this breakfast dish. If anything, I've found that clear broths carry the pure essence of the meat, whether it's Bak Kut Teh, chicken soup or Bulalo, because impurities that cloud the color can also muddy the flavor.
Getting a soup such a Bak Kut Teh clear isn't complicated, but there are some steps that need to be followed in order to end up with a clear, rich soup. The trick is to give the bones a cleansing first boil, followed by a scrub, and long simmer in fresh water. Stocks get cloudy from the blood and coagulated proteins that come from the meat and bones as it cooks. By giving it an initial boil to set the proteins and a wash and scrub with clean water, only a small amount of this gunk will come out once you put the meat and bones back into a clean pot of water. The long simmer releases all the flavor trapped in the meat and bones without any of the broth clouding components.
Bak Kut Teh (Sparerib Soup) - for soup
For dipping sauce
- Cut the spare ribs apart at every second rib so they're in managable sized pieces. Cover the spare ribs with a handful of salt, and let it sit in a container overnight in the refrigerator. The next day, bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil, then add the pork (you may need to do this in two batches). Return the water to a boil and let cook them until there is no blood coming out (about 5-10 minutes). Use tongs to transfer the ribs to a bowl of cold water, then scrub any bits of blood or scum off of them. Give them a rinse under cold water and put them in a clean bowl. Repeat with the rest of the ribs.
- Dump the now murky water down the drain and rinse out the pot. Add the cleaned ribs to the pot with the garlic, peppercorns and cinnamon, and add enough water to cover the top of the ribs by 1-inch. Bring the water to a simmer over medium high heat, then lower the heat to maintain a gentle simmer (medium low on my stove). Skim off any foam or fat that floats to the surface (you should only have to do this for the first 20 minutes). Continue simmering uncovered for 2 hours.
- To make the dipping sauce for the ribs, combine the kecap manis, soy sauce and chilis in a bowl then divide evenly among small bowls or ramekins. If you can't find kecap manis, you can also use Chinese dark soy sauce mixed with some honey or agave nectar.
- After two hours the water should be just above the level of the meat. If it's too low, add some more water so the meat is just covered. Taste the soup for salt adding more as needed, then add the green papaya. Cover with a lid and turn down the heat slightly and cook for another 1 hour. Add the gai choy and cook for about a minute or until it is bright green.
- Serve in bowls with plenty of soup, sprinkle the fried shallots on top, and serve with a side of rice and the dipping sauce.