Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Double Happy Bak Kut Teh - The Golden Age of Singapore Hawkers

Whenever people talk of bak kut teh, they will invariably point to either the peppery Teochew version, or the herbal Hokkien rendition that some say originates from Klang in Malaysia.

The truth of the matter is that we may never know how this pork bone broth originated, save for some scant details published on the web.

Malaysians are fiercely insistent that bak kut teh originated in Klang in the 1940s, and the dark coloured, herbal infused soup is the original catalyst for this popular street food dish.

Having done a little research, and spoken to a few experts on the matter, I am now convinced that bak kut teh began here in Singapore as early as the 1930s. In fact, it may have its roots even earlier, but what I can be sure of is that the oldest surviving BKT stall is Double Happy Bak Kut Teh.

Presently located at Zion Market, it is helmed by Goh Liang Di, a third generation hawker from a stall that was initially operated by his granddad. It was in 1936 that he and his father first came to Singapore, and he was five then.

During the 1930s, where we know as Clarke Quay now was the hub of all commercial activities in Singapore. Trading of herbs and spices were the mainstays of the day for the Chinese dialect clans, and this is also why Teochew and Hokkien bak kut teh have their own personalites.

For the Hokkiens traded mostly in herbs and the Teochews specialised in spices. This would naturally find their way in their own takes on the pork rib broth. While the Chinese immigrants were largely from Fujian, the earliest known versions of bak kut teh were actually from the Teochew folks.

Bak Kut Teh was said to be the breakfast of champions for the coolies working along the docks. It provided an early power boost due to the tonic like soup, and a bowl of white rice for the necessary energies. And all washed down with a cup of Chinese tea to cleanse the palate.

Liang Di's granddad was among the first pioneers of these bak kut teh vendors, located on Read Bridge (today it is the bridge connecting Clarke Quay to Merchant Court Hotel), and the bridge was referred during those days as the Green Bridge due to its colour.

The Teochews, in particular, would gather at the bridge after work to share stories as during then, there was little entertainment to be found. Storytellers regaling the folks with interesting and colorful tales whilst enjoying the scenery of the Singapore river and having food would be the embodiment of our kampung spirit.

This daily activity was put on hold during the Second World War, but once the war as over, the multitude of hawkers and dialect clans were back in force. And over the decades, Double Happy would move a number of times.

First to Sai Tor Lane (Merchant Road), then to Xin Lane (where Funan Mall is now) before settling in to Hill Street Hawker Centre from the 1980s onwards. It was there that their business was at their peak, garnering a dedicated following and they stayed there for a few decades until the hawker centre there was demolished in the 2000s.

Finally, they moved to Zion Market and they are very much still there today. By all accounts, this is not only the longest surviving hawker stall from the same direct lineage, but they are probably one of the oldest hawkers around. Today, Double Happy is at least 80 years strong.

Golden Taste of Bak Kut Teh

You might be wondering about the taste of this longstanding bak kut teh, and I will tell you it is vastly different from both the Teohew and Hokkien versions. For one, it is neither as peppery nor as herbal, but instead, it has a natural sweetness from the robust pork stock.

There is still some white pepper underneath, but it is never overpowering like the popular bak kut teh establishments, and the garlic notes are just as subtle. It has a strong pork liver flavour profile to it, and it is finished off with a generous handful of scallion, which adds a brightness and lilting sweetness to it.

For most, it may seem underwhelming at first, but the gentle notes of the pork, garlic and scallion will eventually linger on. And there is a more pronounced use of soy sauce as well, which gives it a nice umami savoury tone.

Ultimately, it does not pack as much punch initially, but like a good wine, it will likely leave a fond and comforting taste on your palate long after you have finished this soup. And it will beckon you to return again, to enjoy that more tender flavour and recall a taste that is so much a part of our golden age of street food.

Steamed Squid

In the olden days, Double Happy would only serve the pork rib soup. Over time, and being Teochew, they would supplement their signature bak kut teh by selling more Teochew affiliated dishes.

In the beginning, they would buy steamed fish and seafood from Teochew porridge stalls nearby. But over time, they would learn to make their own steamed dishes and even now, they still offer a selection of steamed seafood plates to go along with the bak kut teh.

A classic Teochew favourite is steamed squid. Lightly salted, the protein is perfectly cooked and has a buttery tenderness that matches any Western take on it. Served with a plum sauce to give it a zesty little lift.
Steamed Threadfin

Often, the fish dishes vary depending on the catch of the day. But if you can get your hands on this threadfin, it is just marvelous. It is also lightly salted, and the meat inside is so soft it is almost mushy. The salt just lightly brings out the freshness of the fish flavour, and when eaten in tandem with a spoon of the tasty soup, it is simply heavenly.

One thing to note is there is no sauce, just the natural juice from the fish. It may look a little dry, but trust me, once you dig your chopsticks in, it will peel away easily. The meat should be moist and flavourful, and because they only use fresh fish, it should have a taste of the ocean with just a little salt to flavour it.

And the reason it looks so simple and plain is that it is steamed traditionally in a bamboo basket, so there is no marinate or sauce to help it along. But when you have a bite of this delicious simplicity, you will not look back.
Liang Di

Liang Di is now in his fifties, and having learnt from both his granddad and father, he has dutifully kept to the original recipe, save for some changes due to modern constraints.

He told us that during the early days, the pork ribs would be boiled in a whole rack for a stronger flavour. It is only when a customer orders that they would chop the rack into smaller rib portions.

During then, pork was sold and cooked fresh. These days, pork has to be frozen and cooked in rib sizes, thus the original taste profile has been somewhat modified. Yet, Double Happy's bak kut teh is as close as you can get from the original bak kut teh in the 1930s.

In fact, according to Liang Di, Ng Ah Sio's dad (who popularised bak kut teh in the 1960s) used to patronise Double Happy during their days at Read Bridge. And for those who have tried Ah Sio's dad version, I am told the Silver Age of the 60s bak kut teh had a very dark coloured soup as compared to the ones you find today.

It was Uncle Lim and Rong Cheng Bak Kut Teh that started that the current style of light and peppery broth. Uncle Lim himself was a fan of Ng Ah Sio's dad, and began tweaking his own BKT to have a stronger hit of pepper and miminised the use of dark and light soya sauce. Uncle Lim was also the first to use the dragon bone, the longish prime rib neatly frenched before anyone else.

As for Double Happy, Liang Di is possibly the last generation to operate this heritage stall. Maybe he will be part of the rare centurion hawker names of Singapore, but it is undeniable that this particular taste of the golden age of bak kut teh will be lost to us soon.

Liang Di himself does not seem aware of the significance of his stall and his food, nor his proud heritage. He works just like any other hawker here, and the quiet and unassuming nature of his work may be lost to our current generation.

For the rest of us, we can still savour this comforting bowl of pork rib broth for a few more years. It is, indeed, a golden taste from the golden age of Singapore hawkers.

Double Happy Bak Kut Teh
70 Zion Road

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