If I may say so, I’m not the biggest fan of Malaysian bak kut teh.
I don’t dislike it, but as with herbal chicken, it has a strong aromatic flavor and taste that just isn’t suitable for consumption on a daily basis. Besides, as the Chinese would say, it’s “heaty”.
Owing to the multi-ethnic and cosmopolitan fabric of the nation, bak kut teh, as with many Singaporean street dishes, has several versions.
For bak kut teh (literally, pork bone tea), there’s the indiscriminately named “Malaysian version”, which as the name suggests, has its origins from the states up north. And the pork rib soup is garnished with clear cuts of beancurd skin, sliced button mushrooms and a slice of leafy vegetable. Also refered to as the “herbal bak kut teh”, it has a umistakable Chinese herbal aroma. Unsurprisingly, it has the richest of flavors, which is the exact reason why it’s not more popular with Singaporeans who’re typically accustomed to tamer piquancy. It’s this version that Hongji Claypot Bak Kut Teh serves.
You may or may not already know this, but due to the more tedious preparation of this dish, bak kut teh often commands a bit of a premium compared to other hawker favorites. The most basic works, which comprises of a pork ribs soup and rice with a complimentary side of sliced chili in dark soy sauce, typically costs about SGD 7 to 12. So, it’s somewhat of a miracle that Hongji is managing SGD 5 averages and the food doesn’t suck.
The original stall is located at Marsiling, but if that’s too far for you, there are a handful of branches scattered somewhat across the island. When I said “across the island”, I meant that they’re located at Ang Mo Kio, Ang Mo Kio Industrial Park (read: Serangoon North), Sin Ming and Geylang. Staying in Sin Ming, I of course, went to the one at Ang Mo Kio. The Sin Ming location is at Blk 22, which is technically very near where I stay (straight line distance) but is completely out-of-place for anyone with no wheels. The Ang Mo Kio outlet is located at Blk 107, which is rightly placed at the southern entrance of Mayflower/Kebun Bahru station of the future Thomson Line, or for the “now” folks, junction of Street 11 and Avenue 4 off Avenue 3. And it’s a blissful 20 minute stroll from my place, of which two-thirds of it is through Ang Mo Kio-Bishan Park.
The stew is conjured from the essence of quintessential Chinese herbs like dang shen (codonopsis root), dang gui (Chinese Angelica root) and dried tangerine peel in addition to the pork rib. These give it a soup that’s rich and nourishing while keeping it light enough for diners who’re not accustomed to Chinese herbs. I initially found it less overpowering than most Chinese herbal chicken dishes, but I’d say it’s a gradual build up. Towards the end, I thought it got increasingly Chinese medicinal in taste for some reason.
And that’s where the side of sliced bird’s-eye chili (chili padi) in dark soy sauce comes in handy. The sweetness of the dark soy sauce really balances out the building up of the bitterness coming from the broth. Mine was, as usual, straight iced tea)
Hongji very considerably serves the pork ribs sliced into bite-sized pieces, but as with many bak kut teh eateries (even the good ones), the meat ultimately flirts between tender and overdone. And for some, the latter’s fine, because eating bak kut teh is more than just the pork rib. It’s as much as, and sometimes more about the broth than anything. Diners would order bowls and bowls of Chinese crullers (you tiao), knowing that the fragrant saltiness and the porous nature of the pastry will enhance the appreciation of the broth.
According to Daniel Food Diary, the Ang Mo Kio branch (which I visited) has adapted the tastes slightly towards the blander side to suit local palettes. It’s good and bad, I suppose. For those who appreciate Malaysian bak kut teh, Hongji at Ang Mo Kio may come up short.
Overall, I thought it was okay. I didn’t go to heaven and come back enlightened, but it’s certainly far from bad or mediocre. If I crave bak kut teh, I might come back but between you and me, there are a handful of options for bak kut teh around my place so…it adds to the variety, I s’ppose.