It was two years ago that the Food Canon introduced me to Jabez Tan at Jalan Kayu where he first started the original New Soon Hua BKT there. And I have literally waited two years to write this piece.
Then, as an upstart in the bak kut teh industry, Jabez was formulating his own original BKT recipe that combined elements of both Malaysian Klang style herbal soup with a bit of our own local BKT flavors.
That first attempt was, sadly, not the best BKT we have tasted. But Jabez was a very driven and focused man, and was open to comments and suggestions. Somehow, I knew that given time, he would take the effort and labor to hone his craft.
I thought, like a lot of things in life, that his BKT should get another shot at being successful. And lo and behold, his new and wholly owned BKT outlet with his improved recipes are now far and above what he originally used to serve at Jalan Kayu.
|Jabez in the Kitchen|
Jabez was himself an ex-convict, and was destined for a far less positive outcome in life when he became a Christian and reformed. First, by being a dishwasher in the prison kitchen, then working his way up to cooking there and eventually, when he was released, began to take an astute interest in all things culinary.
BKT was something he has adored as a child, and upon making the decision to start his own eatery, decided to make BKT his main focus. Over time, he began to work on other dishes relating to BKT to add to his repertoire.
|Soon Huat BKT Interior|
Remembering how he has managed to overcome his chequered past, he has an even greater mission today to help other fellow ex-offenders turn their lives around by giving them the opportunity to work in his kitchen. Thus, the original Soon Huat BKT was born.
Today, he manages and operates the 5 month old Soon Huat BKT in Bedok with nearly all of his staff comprising of ex-offenders. And you might think that seeing tattooed waiters and staff as an intimidation, but in reality, they are warm, friendly and very eager to serve.
Jabez told me the important thing for the ex-offenders when they leave prison is to give them a purpose and make them feel that they belong again in a community. And that sense of communal kinship was evident during my time there.
As I have mentioned, the food is much better from my previous visit at Jalan Kayu, which incidentally is not managed by Jabez any longer. Jabez is fully committed to his new recipes and menu at his Bedok stall, so visitors to the Jalan Kayu site should not expect the same quality as you get in Bedok. There are also a number of new additions as well.
Their standard BKT can come with all the extra pig stuff, like intestines, or you can request to just have the classic pork ribs instead. Either way, the broth that I tasted was so much more robust and full bodied this time.
There was still some sweetness from some light herbs used, but it was not as strong nor as sweet as before. The balance was much better, and although there is still room for improvement, the broth was a success as far as BKT goes.
The pork used has also been switched to Argentinian pork, which is the more preferred soft bone variant. This resulted in a cleaner tasting pork rib, with less of the gamey pork odor, and had a better tenderness to the meat. The meat was also far easier to fall off the bone.
Jabez also came up with this innovative dry BKT version which is quite clever in its conception, but still requires some fine tuning to get the flavors up to speed. Nevertheless, the same Argentinian pork ribs were used and had that same beautiful tenderness and light pork flavors.
It was also delightfully garnished with strips of fried shallots and cuttlefish which gave it some very nice contrasting textures as well as providing a new spectrum of flavors into the traditional BKT base.
The letdown was the somewhat weak soy marinate and sauce that seemed to lack that critical punch to infuse the pork with. Somehow, I believe that given time, Jabez will eventually get this right. Fingers crossed.
|Braised Pig Trotters|
Similarly, the pig trotters were braised in the same light soy base that we had with the dry BKT. Sauce aside, the pig trotters were actually very well cooked and flavorful. It was tender inside and very well presented as a whole.
The surprise of the day was this amazingly delicious tau kee served in a claypot. The tau kee they used is imported from Malaysia, and the quality showed. For the uninitiated, tau kee is a brittle soy wafer made from scrimping the top layer of a hot soymilk as it cools.
There was an aromatic crisp to every bite of the tau kee, and infused with a little of the soy base, it was utterly delicious and addictive. Interestingly enough, Jabez mentioned this dish resulted from customers requesting to eat tau kee mixed with his soy sauce, and he experimented and it worked right away.
|Jabez and His Bubbly Crew|
Coming from a mixed Hokkien and Teochew heritage, this mix of dialects is actually well reflected in his cooking. His BKT, especially, has aspects of classic Teochew BKT infused with some of the more herbal Hokkien elements. And throw in a few bits of Malaysian Klang styled BKT to boot.
Say what you will about finding the best BKT or pig trotter in Singapore, and you might argue Soon Huat is not among the top 5. But you certainly cannot fault Jabez for his effort.
Then again, the main story here is not about how good the BKT is. Though it is undoubtedly good and even without the social enterprise factor, there is already a good reason to dine here.
But Jabez, who has since turned his life around to such a meaningful manner, and in return, helping others like him do similar reformations is the real inspiration here.
As we are about to celebrate the holiday season, and looking forward to a new year, we sometimes tend to forget that there are a lot of things that we tend to trivialize. Things that seem insignificant to us, can actually mean so much more to others who might have been wayward and is now just finding their path.
I said I waited two years to write this is because in 2011, the BKT that Jabez served up was not up to scratch. But I thought that it deserved a second chance. Given the intervening 2 years, Jabez has not given up this business, but instead, he has continued to persevered through some difficulties and come out stronger and better.
Similarly, Soon Huat BKT also believes in giving the less fortunate a second chance. In that regard, the staff that are working here now are experiencing a new lease of life. There can be fewer things more moving or more inspirational than that.
This season, spread some goodwill by actually meaning it. If nothing else, make a trip to Bedok and meet Jabez and his guys. Have a meal there and that is already supporting the good work of Jabez and co.
Just talking to Jabez was a humbling experience in itself. It clearly shows in today's results driven Singapore, there is still some humanity left in some of us. Individually, we can never be perfect. But when we collectively come together, there is so much good we can do.
Merry Christmas everyone, from the Silver Chef.
Soon Huat Bak Kut Teh
302 Bedok Road
Bedok Shopping Complex (Simpang Bedok)