There are monkeys along the road that leads North from Johor Bahru, Malaysia. They squat on their haunches at the edge of the tarmac, watching us whiz by. We've been in the small Nissan driven by Ettore since 8:00am, having needled through Johor Bahru, passed suburbs of dusty, crowded local shops, then buzzed along countless hectares of stunted palm trees in the middle of nowhere. It’s almost 11 am and we’re hungry, having eaten nothing all morning – which explains our three hour ride from Singapore – for bak kut teh.
“It’s the best I’ve had,” Ettore announced three nights before at a Makansutra dinner. Now, I’ve tried a lot of damn good pork rib tea in Singapore, but Ettore’s strong comment gave me pause. He has, after all, been in the F&B business here for more then twenty years. So when he offered to drive to the situs of “the best bak kut teh,” I jumped at the chance.
|Misspelling or not?|
Kian Kee Bak Kut Tea attracts a breakfast crowd of locals and pork bone soup aficionados from all over. That’s right, breakfast. Which is the best time to eat this hearty meal of pork ribs slow cooked to melting tenderness in a soupy concoction of herbs and spices. It’s an unassuming place that one might drive right by unless spotting the dirt lot crowded with cars bearing Singapore plates. About 40 km north east of JB in Kota Tingii, it’s connected to a rustic motorcycle repair shop crammed with greasy parts and scooters. The restaurant is little more than a thatched roof pondok over a concrete pad and indicated by a plain sign with the traditional “Teh” part of its main dish spelled like the elixir the soup is: “Tea.” Beneath is an open kitchen with a row of coal pots and a few enormous stockpots. Smoke from real wood charcoal is pushed around lazily by ceiling fans and flames shoot up around the sides of clay pots bubbling furiously with an array of brown, clear and opaque liquids purging streams of fragrant, herbaceous steam.
Kian Kee has been an institution in these parts for more than 20 years. Back in the day they made their famous tea/soup with wild boar hunted locally in the jungle. Today, however, it’s local domestic pigs that keeps everyone coming back for more. Each serving is cooked in claypot to order, gurgling under the heat of flames dancing around the edges, occasionally sparking up into bubbles of miniature porcine fireworks. Multiple claypots boil away at the same time, most with the prized dish, but others with delicate liquids and vegetables or bread getting a claypot grilling to add a subtle, slightly smoky char along the edges. The aromas, sounds and visuals of this rustic, almost-outdoor cooking of a food that is really supposed to be cooked only this way, is utterly intoxicating and just plain sexy.
Everyone who goes here orders the same thing from the very limited menu: the bak kut teh. Of course, add to it a little mei cai (wafer-like crispy tofu skin) and some you tiao (those slender, deep fried bread stick chunks) and you’ve got yourself a meal that will carry you deep into the afternoon. A pot of Hao Cha Loh tea, should steep at the table, providing a remarkably fragrant and satisfying drink. But we didn’t stop at the bak kut teh. As if to somehow further validate our distance-traveled to volume-eaten quotient, we also ordered braised pig trotter, enoki mushrooms in fragrant broth, stewed tripe, pork-braised Tau Fu Pok (fried beancurd) and steamed rice.
|Secret ingredient - wine|
The bak kut teh came still bubbling and was almost viscous with richness. And upon first taste it displayed a different flavor profile than what I expected from my Singapore versions. It was light on pepper (unlike many in Singapore) and richly translucent with savory pork flavor, strong herbs, garlic and a curious tingle of Chinese rice wine which added an umami-like enhancement to the overall experience. Its delectable balance of salt and herbs created the perfect host for the glistening pork, clinging pale to the bones but slipping off into moist buttery bites bursting with infused flavors from the luxurious elixir it bathed in. And as the mei cai absorbed the tea it added a chewy sensation that was out of this world. It was, in a word, ultra-shiok!
The trotter was tender and robust, with a dark braising liquid adding a porky richness and an earthiness from the claypot in which it cooked.
It offered a flavor alternative to the bak kut teh which was complimentary and, oddly, not the least redundant. The meat dripped from the bones into tender slivers of knuckle goodness that made us swoon.
The tripe (stomach) floated elegantly in a simple pepper pork broth and presented a gentle, not-so-chewy texture and clean taste. With no hint of iron mineral-ness it was a soothing offal dish and easily the most delicate tripe I’ve had.
Resting on the surface of thin stock, entertained by some barely wilted bok choy cabbage, the enoki mushrooms were alluring in their snow white gentility. Evoking memories of fine Japanese dining, the clear broth served as a featherweight canvas for the barely-fruity taste and moist texture of the mushrooms. A study in beauty and simplicity, it was culinary mycology at its best.
To be sure, there is excellent bak kut teh in Singapore; some versions that I would proudly serve to anyone from anywhere. But Kiang Kee offers something different and not readily available in Singapore anymore – rustic old school cooking in a setting reminiscent of days gone by. Combine that with the exceptional flavor alternative to what is encountered across the causeway and you have something worth driving three hours for. But get there early, because at Kiang Kee breakfast is the name of the game and they’re sold out by lunch.
Restaurant Kiang Kee Bak Kut Tea
Batu 8 ½
Kota Tingii 81900
7:30 am – 12 (or until sold out).