Thursday, August 31, 2017

BakBak at Circular Road - Rong Cheng Bak Kut Teh in a New Light

Traditions are hard to change, especially when it comes to heritage food. For decades, our popular Bak Kut Teh has remained largely the same since the 60s.

White peppery, garlicky broth filled with chunks of pork ribs. Served with a side of soy braised pork trotters and pickled vegetables. Finished off with a brew of Chinese oolong tea.

This same array of dishes and beverage is still commonly seen in the most established of Bak Kut Teh outlets around the island.

Even "new boys" like Old Street Bak Kut Teh has stuck to the same formula, albeit in a more modern setting of air conditioned environments tucked in packed malls. BakBak is determined to change all that with a single stroke as it launches it's first outlet at Circular Road.

The foundation of this latest incarnation of our Singapore food icon is in fact, a spin-off from Rong Cheng Bak Kut Teh at Midview City. The founder, Uncle Lim, was the first pioneer to break the mould of dark coloured pork bone soups back in 1976.

Before than, Bak Kut Teh was either herbal infused (Hokkien influenced) or soya flavoured (Teochew preferred). It was Uncle Lim that first started the practice of removing the soya component entirely, and relied on the natural notes of fresh pork, garlic and peppercorn to produce the now popular white peppery taste.

He was also the first BKT to use dragon bone, the sabre looking pork loin rib that is far more exclusive back then. Today, every notable BKT eatery has it, but it all started with Rong Cheng.

With BakBak, Uncle Lim has handed down the reins of Rong Cheng to his son, Lionel. The second generation BKT practitioner is also determined to pave a new era of this classic dish, one that will be inspiring a new wave of Bak Kut Teh fans that are more tailored to this millennium's taste and trend.

Sanuki Udon BKT

One of the most prominent dishes at BakBak is this Udon BKT. Using premium Sanuki udon from the Kagawa Prefecture, the idea is to update the mee sua BKT with a Japanese inspired twist. The bite of the wheat flour noodles giving it an interesting change from the more softer texture of mee sua.

Elsewhere, the broth is still the same Rong Cheng taste, but with the addition of lettuce and the noodles, the soup's profile has been lightened and has a sweeter vegetable tone which might be more enticing to the ladies who prefer a less intense taste.

Sea Cucumber BKT

Sea cucumber is added into the same soup base for this variant, and BakBak uses only wild caught sea cucumber. It is not the standard frozen type that has been pumped up with chemicals, and the difference in texture and size is quite evident.

As sea cucumbers are usually quite bland on its own, the notion of soaking it in a BKT broth proves to be another inspired choice. It gives the broth a lighter feel as well, and coupled with the bounce like bite of the sea cucumber, it is another interesting take on the traditional BKT formula.

Prawn Rolls

Something that I particularly enjoyed was the housemade prawn rolls, which are are made fresh daily. There is a less emphasis of flour in the filling, and the use of waterchestnuts and diced carrots gives it both flavour and crunch. Simple yet homely.

Innovative Sides

In order to differentiate from the usual BKT places, BakBak has decided to drop familiar favourites like liver and kidney, and opted for a modern Asian inspired accompaniment of side dishes.

Chawanmushi with crab, fried dough sticks, cold tofu and my own personal pick for the sides - Fried fish skin that is just ideal for dipping into the hot piping broth. The combination of deep fried goodness, soaked with the peppery porcine soup is highly addictive.

For those who favour their signature Rong Cheng favourites, fret not. The standalone dragon bone broth and soya braised pork trotters are still available here in their original guises. And they taste exactly like the old Rong Cheng classics.

Fizzy Lychee Tea

BKT is synonymous with Chinese tea, and taking note of this tradition, BakBak has also come up with something different in this regard. Working with regular BKT tea merchant Pek Sin Choon, they have a cold lychee tea that makes use of a very good blend of red tea and lychee essence.

CO2 is also infused into the beverage for a refreshing finish, and because the sweetness is mild, it still fits the classic BKT tea pairing concept perfectly. For those preferring a more familiar tea, there is also a hot Osmanthus tea that is just as alluring as it is appropriate to go with the soup dishes.

Besides the modern updates on the food menu, BakBak is also among the first to launch a mobile app for diners to use when they visit the restaurant. With that, you can simply scan the code on each table and peruse the entire menu on your mobile.

You can order and pay via the same app without interacting with the staff, and there are individual single dining booths if you wish to eat without interruption as well, similar to Ichiran Ramen.

While BKT traditionalists may frown upon some of these new concepts, Lionel has to be applauded for trying to think out of the BKT box. I suspect some of the newer dishes may just attract a different generation of BKT fans, and Lionel is still in the midst of experimenting with newer dishes and ideas.

But one thing that stands out for me at BakBak is the fact that the base flavours of Rong Cheng are still omnipresent. The peppery delight of the pork bone broth is undeniably the same as you get at Midview City, and the soy braised pork trotters are still among the best (if not, the best) among all the BKT establishments.

It shows that Bak Kut Teh, like Singapore food, cannot just stand still. It needs a new perspective as the years roll by, and our heritage food needs to evolve with the times. BakBak's boldness in modifying the old may take some time to sink in, but it is a vital first step in taking our Singapore food that much closer to an international export.

For sure, it presents Bak Kut Teh in a whole different light.

10 Circular Road

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