Bak Kut Teh: Singapore's Breakfast Pork-Rib Soup

Tracking down bak kut teh, Singapore's breakfast pork-rib soup

When jet lag leaves you wide awake at 6:30 a.m. in Singapore, you've got a few options. Stay in bed and try falling back asleep. Order room service breakfast and force your body to embrace the time change. Or step outside your hotel and keep walking until you find a dozen people queued up at the door of a small restaurant—one that's redolent with aromas of garlic, spice and meat.

That's how I was introduced to Song Fa restaurant and its signature dish, bak kut teh. The phrase translates to "meat bone tea," but it's actually pork-rib soup (get the recipe). The broth is prepared with garlic, pepper, spices and soy sauce, and cooked until the pork is fall-off-the-bone tender. To complete the meal, the soup is typically served alongside tea, hence the name—bak kut meaning "meat bone" and teh equaling "tea."

When you're exhausted from a long flight and a 13-hour time difference, that combo can be a lifesaver. The meat provided me with much-needed sustenance, and when my broth got low, the generous staff refilled it from a kettle. It was everything I needed to power through a long day of sightseeing, quayside beers and gorging myself at hawker stalls.

The exact origins of bak kut teh are unclear, but it's believed to have hailed from China's Fujian province, with an approximate time stamp of 1930 to 1940. The recipe eventually migrated to Singapore, becoming especially popular in the 1960s as an inexpensive, fortifying meal for laborers working by the harbor. The mix of hearty pork ribs with heavily spiced broth provided the workers with quick, affordable energy to start their day.

Song Fa was founded in 1969 when Mr. Yeo Eng Song opened his little pushcart along Johor Road. Now, the operation is run by his children and has grown to include eight outlets across Singapore, with four more in Jakarta and one in Shanghai. The restaurant's trademark dish remains a draw among those who grew up eating bak kut teh.

"With almost 50 years of history, we have regular customers who continue to visit Song Fa," Diana Yeo says. But the proud owners are steadfast in getting their prized dish in front of younger crowds, too.

"We constantly come up with new dishes and activities catered to families, to encourage the younger generation to appreciate and enjoy bak kut teh," she says.

At the top of Singapore's bak kut teh purveyors pile, Song Fa is joined by Founder, another early adopter with roots tracing back to 1978. Like Song Fa, Founder makes its bak kut teh in the Teochew style, which is characterized by a light peppery broth. This is in contrast to the Hoklo and Cantonese styles, which rely more on soy sauce and herbs, respectively.

Founder's . . . founder, Mr. Chua Chwee Whatt, was a pig farmer before getting into the bak kut teh game. Naturally, the restaurant takes great pride in its pork. "For over 40 years, we have focused on the meat," Whatt's son, Nigel, says. "We make sure our meat is fresh, so our soup has the sweetness of the meat with a light, peppery punch. 

Once back home, I wanted to keep adding to my bak kut teh experience. Turns out the dish is hard to find. Interest in Singaporean and Malay food—especially street food—is on the rise, but the cuisines in general haven't taken hold stateside like those of their Southeast Asian neighbors. And bak kut teh in particular isn't a common sight on restaurant menus. But if you look hard enough, you can find it.

Nyonya in New York serves a decent bowl, though not with the same delicate flavor and peppery punch as those in Singapore. And a small handful of restaurants in the Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston and Washington, D.C. areas offer it—basically anywhere groups of Malays and Singaporeans have settled. It may take some sleuthing, but bak kut teh will turn up, often leading you to the suburbs or off-the-beaten-path neighborhoods.

When you do find a bowl, it's worth sampling. But, as with most things, the best examples come straight from the source. And just remember: Though excellent in any situation, pork-rib soup somehow tastes even better after an international flight.

Kevin Gray is a Dallas-based food, drinks and travel writer. Follow his adventures on Twitter and Instagram.