Monday, February 24, 2014

Chaozhou's (& Malaysia's) meaty bone soup

One of the most popular soups in Malaysia and Singapore is called bak kut teh, which means “meaty bone tea,” and that is a direct translation of the Chinese name, rougu cha

This aromatic and soothing soup was most likely brought to Southeast Asia by one or another of the many Chaozhou natives who eventually settled there, and now it is so firmly ensconced in that area’s many rich cuisines that it is like a favorite adopted son. (By the way, it’s called a “tea” since the broth is often drunk separately from the meat.)

This dish—like sesame oil chicken and angelica duck—is seasoned with Chinese medicinal herbs, a hallmark of the Chinese southeast's many healthful soups. And, like them, this is cheap and easy to make.

Traditionally, the pork ribs are simply tossed into boiling water with the herbs and some garlic, but I have fooled around with this and given it a whole lot more depth and color. (If you prefer chicken to pork, use a pound of chopped-up chicken legs instead and simmer for only one hour instead of two.)

Cut between the bones
First, the riblets are marinated in good soy sauce. They are then fried, which not only gets rid of any wobbly fat, but also caramelizes the meat and makes the kitchen smell like heaven. I also add a whole lot of whole garlic, and these remain sweet as they impart their fragrance to the broth and end up as tender pillows that you will fight over. I’ve also sneaked in ginger, rice wine, black mushrooms, dried daylily flowers, and some rock sugar to even out the flavors.

The herbs and spices, though, are what make this soup so unique: things like Solomon’s seal root (yuzhu), anise, angelica root, Chinese dates, licorice root, and star anise are some of the usual suspects, but some people also like to add wolfberries, aged tangerine peel, stick cinnamon, whole cloves, arhat fruit, dried longans… it all depends upon how much underlying sweetness and fruitiness you are aiming for in this dish.

Rougu cha herbal mixture
Luckily for us, various companies have put together herb packets particularly designed for this soup that you can find in most well-stocked Chinese grocery stores. If they don’t have this, though, just visit a Chinese herbalist’s and let them know you need the fixin’s for one pound of ribs to make rougu cha, and they will pull them together for you.

Be warned that the herbal broth will taste bitter and harsh at first, but somewhere along the way during the braising process this evolves into a comforting underlayer that melds with the flavors of the meat, sugar, wine, and soy sauce. Serve as is or over noodles, and with a side of greens, if you like.

Meaty bone soup

Ròugŭ chá  肉骨茶  
Chaozhou, Southern Fujian
Dry daylily flowers
Serves 2 to 4

1 pound (more or less) good pork spareribs cut in half by the butcher (see Tips), or 2 whole chicken legs whacked into 1-inch pieces
2 tablespoons regular soy sauce
8 cups filtered water
1 (60 grams/ 2.1 ounce, more or less) packaged rougu cha herbal mix (see Tips)
4 large black mushrooms, either fresh or rehydrated
¼ cup dried daylily flowers
Boiling water, as needed
3 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil, divided
8 whole large cloves garlic, peeled
5 or 6 thin slices fresh ginger
½ cup rice wine (Taiwanese Mijiu)
2 tablespoons rock sugar

1. Rinse the spareribs, pat dry, and then slice between the bones so that each bone is surrounded by meat. Place the riblets in a small work bowl, toss with the soy sauce, and let them sit in a cool area for an hour or so.

In the sandpot
2. While the pork is marinating, rinse the whole dried herbs in a sieve and the little cloth sack that comes in the package, and then pack the sack with the herbs. (If there is no sack, use a teaball or wrap the herbs in some cheesecloth.) If there is another sachet in the package filled with the smaller herbs and spices, rinse this off as well. Place both packets of herbs in a 3-quart saucepan, add the 8 cups water, cover, and bring the pan to a boil. Reduce the heat to a gentle simmer and cook this for 1 hour to make an herbal broth. Discard the herbs.

3. While the herbs are simmering away, turn your attention to the dried ingredients. If the mushrooms are dried, place them in a small bowl and cover with boiling water; when plump, rinse them well, and then strain the soaking liquid before adding it to the herbal broth. No matter whether the mushrooms are fresh or rehydrated, remove the stems and cut the caps in half. Place the daylily flowers in a small bowl and cover with boiling water; after a few minutes, drain them and discard the water. Tie pairs of the blossoms into simple knots so that they don’t fall apart.

4. Heat a wok over high heat and then add 2 tablespoons of oil, swirl this around, and gently add the marinated ribs to the hot wok (add any leftover soy sauce to the soup in Step 5); adjust the temperature as needed to fry these up so that the marinade caramelizes and all sides of the ribs are browned. Remove the ribs from the wok and place them in a medium (8- to 10-cup) sandpot. Pour the remaining 1 tablespoon oil to the wok and fry both the garlic and ginger until they are golden brown, and then toss these into the sandpot along with the mushrooms and daylily flowers.

5. Add the rice wine and rock sugar to the sandpot, and then pour in just enough of the herbal broth to come up to the top of the ribs, but not too much so that the broth will bubble out. Cover the sandpot and bring it to a boil over medium heat, and then reduce the heat to maintain a gentle simmer. Cook the ribs for 2 to 2½ hours, adding more of the herbal broth as needed. (You will need most, if not all, of it; discard any extra.) Taste and adjust the seasoning. Either serve the soup in bowls, or strain the broth out and serve it separately. This is great as is, over noodles, with chopped cilantro, or what have you.
Over cellophane noodles


Get the best heritage pork you can find for this; the flavor and texture are really good here.

Many different companies offer rougu cha herbal mixtures. Try different brands (they’re cheap) and see what appeals to you. I prefer the ones from Taiwan for health reasons. Check the package to see how much meat is called for and adjust the recipe accordingly.


  1. Interesting that you posted this; am a Malaysian Chinese and I grew up eating this back home!

    'Bak kut teh' is the Hokkien (Fujian in Mandarin) pronounciation , and in Malaysia this dish is synonymous with the Hokkien community. I have never quit linked this with this the Teochew (Chaozhou in Mandarin) people, but it makes sense if this dish is also found in Taiwan, where there is a significant population of Teochew people. Some Singaporean vendors seemed to have made it into a milder soup (much much less soy, with hints of pepper), which seems to my Malaysian palate a very Teochew thing to do ;p. Well my dad is Hokkien, my mum's Teochew and we all love this; it is practically a family ritual to have this. Furthermore, there is a whole streetside food culture that I associate with this dish that your article has made me nostalgic for. This is traditionally doled out in big claypot bowls, broth and meat together in a hawker setup. We 'must' order this with crullers (you2 tiao2), and I personally 'must' have pork intestine and stomach with it, 'must' have good 'tie3 guan1 yin1' tea with it :-D . Having it with cellophane noodles (dong1 fun3 ?) is unheard of in Malaysia; everybody eats it with white rice to eat with the moreish broth. I am in London now, but have squirreled away enough packets from a Chinese medicine hall back home. Thank you for posting this.

    1. Mmm, yes! Youtiao! We like it with fensi or noodles, but yes, rice and tea would be great. Perfect match.

      You are doubly lucky to have such a wonderfully delicious background... wow. Very jealous. Thanks for the great memories.