I'm back from Singapore, and let me tell you: if you like to eat, there are few places in the world where so many culinary cultures come together so seamlessly. It's a true melding pot where the only clashes you'll see are between two foodies squabbling over who makes the best chicken rice.
Bak Kut Teh, is another hotly contested dish, and with two very different variations it's easy to see why. Literally translated, Bak Kut Teh means "meat bone tea", and was a breakfast staple keeping dock workers (locally known as coolies) energized and ready to unload the next boat that came into one of the largest ports in Asia.
The Teochew version of Bak Kut Teh served at Outram Ya Hua has a clear broth and is loaded with black pepper. It's brimming with umami and has a peppery bite at the end. Because the soup is clear, it's not heavy or cloying, and you might even go so far as to say it's light. That said, the fall off the bone tender ribs will erase any inclination you might have of calling this dish healthy. Dip each piece of meat and fat that pulls of the bone in dark soy sauce with red chilies and let it melt in your mouth into a porky orgy of flavor.
There are also the ubiquitous fried dough sticks (kind of like doughnuts) that come with many soups here, which you can use to sop up every last bit of the heavenly broth. If that's not enough to fill you up, Outram Ya Hua seems to take the name of the soup quite literally and will top up your bowl with steaming hot broth out of a kettle just as surely as they'll refill your tea.
It's not going to win any beauty pageants any time soon, but as I learned throughout my time in Singapore, the more homely a dish looks, the better it often tastes, and Bak Kut Teh is no exception.
My other favorite dish here was the braised pork trotters. The collagen in the trotters had melted into a jelly consistency and held together bits of meat. Each tender morsel was saturated with soy sauce and garlic and had hints of spices such as cassia and star anise.
A recurring theme I noticed with Teochew cuisine is that many things are braised. There was the braised salted vegetables, which was like a more flavorful version of the cabbage found in corned beef. The braised peanuts were tender, and they reminded me a bit of beans simmer for hours in soy sauce. The braised fried bean curd is like a sponge that absorbs all the flavors of the dark sweet soy sauce that it was cooked in with just a hint of five spice.
The vegetables were perfectly steamed before being tossed with oyster sauce and oil. That alone wouldn't set them apart from vegetables served at any other Chinese restaurant around the world, but as with many dishes Singaporeans have managed to make it just a little better. In this case a mound of crispy deep fried shallots on top rounds out the green and savory flavors while adding a crunchy texture.
The sweet lady that owns this place has been running it for 21 years with her family, and with 8 sisters in her family, she won't be running out of help anytime soon. Here's a copy of the meny as of November 2011:
Outram Park Ya Hua Rou Gu Char.
No.7 Keppel Road.
PSA Tanjong Pagar Complex.
7am-3pm, 6pm-4am, closed Mondays.