Mention bak kut teh (pork ribs soup), those Teochew-style kick-ass peppery hot versions from the popular big boys like Founders, Ng Ah Sio and Rong Cheng Bak Kut Teh effortlessly comes to mind. But hey hey, recently I was introduced to a "old little brother", Lau Ah Tee Bak Kut Teh!
Located at a block of HDB flat within the Whampoa West estate (nearest mrt station: NE9 Boon Keng) in a nondescript coffeeshop-style eating house, it can be easy to dismiss it as just another bak kut teh stall, but those who are in the know will know about the rich history of Lau Ah Tee Bak Kut Teh. They are one of the pioneers to sell the well-loved soupy delicacy in Singapore.
Mr Sim Choon Lian, better known as "Lau Ah Tee", is the eponymous founder of Lau Ah Tee Bak Kut Teh. At a young age of 16, after short working stints at a Teochew porridge stall and also a braised duck stall, he started learning the ropes of cooking bak kut teh under the strict tutelage of his uncle (who is also the founder and father of Ng Ah Sio Bak Kut Teh). Eventually he set up his own stall, and has not looked back on this choice of career path since then.
Now well into 67 years of age, Lau Ah Tee is a still regular fixture at his eatery, personally overseeing the preparation of bak kut teh broth as well as the repertoire of accompanying dishes, ensuring the fare are of a consistent standard. No ambition for expansion, no plans to have his next generation succeed the business, all that Lau Ah Tee sincerely wants is to continue with what he does best: Serving up bowls of simple, heartwarming broth which has delighted his customers all these years.
I had the honor of having a bak kut teh meal with this affable gentleman and he shared with me the evolution of this heritage dish seen through his eyes.
Bak Kut Teh started out as a Teochew-style pork broth mostly eaten (with white rice) by Chinese coolies who believed that the dish provides a good source of energy replenishment, often taking it for breakfast to boost themselves physically for a day of laborious work ahead. The dish eventually gained popularity among the masses, and now it's not uncommon to see people enjoying it at almost anytime of day, and night.
A host of other items such as you tiao (dough fritters), salted vegetables, groundnuts, pig trotters and braised innards are then slowly introduced to complement the main star.
Apparently, a customer always brought along his own you tiao to eat with his order of bak kut teh in those early days, and stubbornly refused to stop this practice despite warnings that "no outside food is allowed". It is then realised that the deep-fried you tiao actually soaked up the pork rib broth deliciously well, and is being offered as one of the staple side dishes ever since.
Unlike the Hokkien variant where soy sauce is added to the broth, or Cantonese-style redolent of herbal flavors, Lau Ah Tee's bak kut teh still sticks to the way it was prepared since decades ago: Teochew-style using a broth base of pork ribs, pepper and garlic, with minimum seasoning.
I was surprised to learn that the pork ribs soup is cooked for only 30 minutes, and it's ready to be served."真的吗? Really just cooked for 30 minutes? Will the soup have enough flavor? Got enough time to soften the meat meh? Don't think Lau Ah Tee will bluff me hor?" All these doubts were running through my mind as I was about to take a sip of the broth.
Surprisingly, the clear broth has all the characteristics of what a good bowl of pork ribs soup should have: Distinctively peppery and garlicky, aromatic with a subtle natural sweetness of pork. Its body is considerably lighter than what we are accustomed to, and with none of the jerlat (surfeit) afterfeel. The taste grew steadily on me, and I found myself continuing drinking refills of the soup, even after my tummy is already quite full from the pieces of tender prime ribs.
Looks like the premium fresh Indonesian pork and quality Sarawak peppercorns which Lau Ah Tee prides on using and his years of experience with mastery control of fire and seasoning really does make a difference!
The second surprise during my visit was to know that Lau Ah Tee also serve Teochew classic dishes such as steamed fish and squid, which is considered quite unusual for a humble stall. The Ikan Kurau (Threadfin) was simply steamed with ginger, preserved vegetables and tomatoes to accentuate its freshness. And fans of squid, be excited because not only the version here is perfectly executed to a bouncy, succulent texture, it comes bursting with jelly-like roe in every slice!
Bak Kut Teh is literally translated as "meat bone tea", but tea is not added to the dish itself. It is often served alongside the soup, as tea helps to cut through the greasiness often associated with the pork-centric meal.
Only when I met up with Kenry Bai (seen in the picture above with Lau Ah Tee), 4th generation owner of Pek Sin Choon, the oldest tea merchant in Singapore which supplies tea to almost all the bak kut teh stalls in Singapore, I learnt that tea-drinking has a much deeper meaning: It's about connecting people, just like how we are connecting over a bak kut teh meal with a pot of tea by the side.
More on Kenry and Pek Sin Choon, coming to you very soon on this PinkyPiggu's Blog and YouTube channel!
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Lau Ah Tee Bak Kut Teh 老亚弟肉骨茶
Address: Blk 34, Whampoa West #01-67, Singapore 330034
Opening Hours: Daily 7am-3pm