Bak Kut Teh (Spare Rib Soup)

Bak Kut Teh - Spare rib soup

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.

Bak Kut Teh in Singapore
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.

Teochew Style Bak Kut Teh
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) feeds 6-8
for soup
5 pounds pork spareribs (I used half spareribs and half loin bones)
1 head garlic smashed
1 Tbs black peppercorns
1 Tbs white peppercorns
cinnamon stick
green papaya, peeled, seeded, then cut into 3/4″ cubes
gai choy
crispy fried shallots (minced shallots deep fried until golden brown and crisp)

for dipping sauce
6 red bird chilis chopped
3 tablespoons kecap manis (Indonesian sweet soy sauce)
3 tablespoons soy 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″. 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.

  • davina

    bak kut teh my sister tells me is a very wholesome dish that the coolies used to drink during the colonial times to revitalize themselves from all that tough labour. Although I’m part Teochew and should really be more inclined to this clearer broth version, I do think that Singaporeans prefer the darker broth one more. Our no.1 bak kut teh, famous even to visiting foreigners and celebrities, is the bak kut teh at Ng Ah Sio (i might blog this at some point) which serves their pork ribs with a very dark and spiced broth. They also serve a meticulous selection of Chinese teas to go with the dishes you pick. Anyway, this looks wonderfully yum. I can almost taste the spices on my tongue..the best part of eating bak kut teh, however, is the “re-taste” when you breathe out.

  • pigpigscorner

    To be honest, I’ve never had Singapore-style bah kut teh, I know it’s peppery unlike the ones I’m used used to. There are many versions of bah kut teh now and the most popular one now happens to be “dry”. The stock is reduced and concentrated, very tasty. Hope to try the peppery one someday.

  • Danielle

    This is one of my comfort foods, especially in the colder months. My mom uses a pre-packaged bag of spices and Chinese herbs to add an aromatic note to the soup, and also adds a couple spoonfuls of dark soya sauce (per Davina’s comment). While I’m partial to both, I generally prefer the clear, peppery version dotted with cloves of garlic. Not the most romantic dish to eat for sure, but romance can take a back seat when there’s comfort in a bowl begging to be eaten! 😉

  • Mike

    If you should find yourself in Singapore, or most of Southeast Asia for that matter. There is a line of retail Chinese herbal stores called Eu Yan Sang. They have the most wonderful Bak Kut Teh spice mix pre-packaged in little sachets. Just add water, pork ribs and the spice mix. I also add shitake mushrooms, whole garlic gloves, and a big handfull of goji berries. I always bring back a couple of boxes when I return to the states.

  • oliver standing

    This looks lovely – is there anything else i could use if I can’t get hold of green papaya?

    • Anonymous

      Winter melon is similar when cooked, or you could leave it out altogether
      (it’s more for texture than flavor).

  • Tracy

    Looks simple to prepare and do,this would be worthy of a try=)

  • Christine Songco

    Every time I head to Asia, I have to have bak kut teh! I first tried it in Singapore and no matter how humid/hot it is outside I’m all for it. However, my Malaysian friends swear by their version being better so I went to try it in Kuala Lumpur. I feel like Singapore is a lighter brother with more chinese taste to it and the Malaysian broth is a darker broth with more Indian spice taste to it. The Singapore version definitely appeals more to me – I think it’s because it reminds me more of Filipino soup bases. If you ever get the chance, head to Melaka in Malaysia and try all the goodies there – Otak Otak and some fresh sting ray. YUM!

  • Lemons and Anchovies

    Love soups like this. When I finally visit Singapore, I just know I’ll go crazy sampling all the food.

    BTW, I’ve been jumping around your blog. Each picture triggers a craving until I’m moved by the next. Love all the food here. :-)

  • A Little Yumminess

    Ahh…this makes me homesick! It’s raining and I would love to have a bowl of this in front of me.

  • gertrude

    You can actually get the ready packed BKT herbs here in the US. They are imported from Malaysia and tasted just as good. Tell me if you need some and I can mail it to you.

    • mel

      hey!!! could you send them to me?? 😀 :D:D:D to contact me please!!!! 😀

  • Gilbert

    OMG, has every food blogger been to Singapore this year? 😛

    Thanks for the tip with first boiling the ribs, I normally scald them with boiling water but I don’t get a broth as clear as yours.

  • the indolent cook

    Hello! I come from the land of Bak Kut Teh that is Klang, Malaysia. And courtesy of my parents I’m half Hokkien, half Teochew. The Hokkien version is more popular in Klang, and I think my mum’s family makes the Teochew style. I have to say I do prefer the Hokkien one, the taste is richer and more unique. But the Teochew one is also nice when you feel like something lighter. Nice effort!!

  • Lefty

    This addresses my only objection to most soups: their lack of heartiness. This seems to have no such problem, and looks great!

    “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.”

    Okay, I don’t know what a couple of those are, but I also have found the same to be true in my soup experiences …

  • Masurin

    This Bah Ku Teh recipe is missing the herbs! :O

    I don’t know how it’s cooked in Singapore but in Malaysia Bah Ku Teh must always be cooked with the BKT herbs or it just isn’t BKT.

  • Gaga

    this is not bak kut teh.  Don’t pretend to show you know since you know nothing.

  • Gthtan

    Travelled intensively in South East Asia. Tried various version of Bah kut teh from the west to the east coast of Malaysia as well as Singapore and all I can say is that each has its own flavour.  However, as far back as I can remember, the semi original is darker clear with lots of garlic and pepper corn (black and white) and dried mushrooms and with a either a packet (lighter flavour) or 2 packets of the prepared bah kut teh spices.  The prepared spices I believed includes 5 spices and the cinnamon as well as the anise/fennel.  Singapore version has different accompaniments of salad veg and pig’s organs

  • mekishell

    this is similar to our Nilagang Baka here in Philippines, except instead of papaya we put potatoes. We put green papaya in Tinolang Manok (which is a kind of chicken soup here) 😀

    This looks really good!

  • Rampailaweng

    Bak kut Teh is my favorite Food, eventhough I don’t know how  to cook but I and my wife always have a dinner at the chinese Resturant..

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