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Bak Kut Teh

After the world’s shortest detox ended in digestive turmoil, I was scared to eat anything even though I was starving. (And now just to torment me, James has taken up the master cleanse. He’s been at it for nearly two days now and is a serious pain to be around. I predict that there won’t be a day three.)  I decided to move away from the raw minimalism of the health nuts and look towards the Chinese food as medicine approach. It’s much tastier.

Really, I’d just been looking for an excuse to use my older than I’d like to admit package of bak kut teh spices that I picked up some time ago in Kuala Lumpur. This is a mostly Malay, also Singaporean “pork rib tea” that’s more like an herbal soup with meat. Food from that corner of the world engenders strong opinions (the number of food bloggers from Singapore and Malaysia is mind boggling) and every region puts their own touch on preparations. I’m not even going for sheer authenticity. I made do with what I had.

Just getting up and to the stove with my stomach churning and head pounding was hard enough. I would’ve loved to have added tofu puffs, chopped my pork ribs into smaller hunks and served the bowl with a fried crueler but I didn’t have the extra additions and a cleaver is still on my wish list. Ah, no clay pot either.


I based my recipe on the one from Rasa Malaysia, but the thing is no one explains how to handle the myriad spices and dried bits that come with the mix. I’m like a Malaysian who opens a bagel shop and makes varieties covered in white chocolate and Oreo crumbs (I think they're confusing bagels with donuts). It’s obvious to a New Yorker why that’s wrong. I was clueless as to what got added to the broth, what should be wrapped in cheesecloth for steeping and what beyond the ribs and soup are meant to be eaten.

I took a look at Amy Beh’s recipe on Kuali, and she explicitly lists what should be cooked loose and what should only flavor the broth. The trouble was that she uses Chinese terminology so I had to Google Image everything and match it to the herbs in my package. The other trouble was a lack of cheesecloth. I ended up cutting a piece of old underwear and tying it up with a string. I told James it was a t-shirt to not gross him out. I’m not even sure that a cotton-poly blend allows proper flavor escape.


This was not a photogenic meal in the least but it was amazingly aromatic. Lightly medicinal and bitter, but warming and slightly sweet from the cinnamon, tangerine peel, star anise and wolfberries. It smelled like a Chinatown herb shop. And obviously, the richness of the pork ribs permeates everything. It’s kind of fake healthy because it’s fatty, but that’s the beauty of nourishing Chinese food.

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