Remembering Bak Kut Teh and Braised Pork Ribs

A month after my grandma passed away, the family gathered back in her house. The scene was an odd familiarity. We used to meet for weekly dinners, but as the grandchildren grew other, it became fortnights and then once in a month, or even every few months. It was not a big deal, seeing my cousins once in a blue moon. After all, we had nothing much to talk about, excluding the occasional questions about school.

I watched as the adults cleared out the kitchen. A lifetime of products stored in a place—I never knew how much things a life amounted to, not until now. The plastic containers of bird’s nest piled onto the dining table. The dried herbs were a blur of white and an occasional brown of ginseng, hard to distinguish unless, like my mother, one already knew what their uses were for. Speckled between were flashes of muted red from the red dates and dried wolfberries. A container clacked open. My aunt took out a piece of chen pi, a piece of dried orange skin coated with white specks. Dropping it into a cup of warm water, it was good refreshment from all the packing.

The kitchen bustled with questions here and there about the uses of various ingredients—to which the answer was always, “Just put in soup, should be ok.” I realised my grandmother’s culinary had been carried away so easily like the last breath she stole from this world and never let go.

On this seat, I had tasted twenty-two years of gourmet food. Though the dishes changed over the years, soy sauce steamed fish, stir-fried broccoli with mushrooms and fishballs, and aluminium-wrapped ginseng chicken were constants. We all knew the broccoli was always there because we kids hated every other vegetable dish. My grandmother always made sure there was an excess of soy sauce covering the fish so we could pour it over our rice. The fish, always steamed to tender perfection, would slip down our throats without having to chew it.

In more recent years, she concocted her own version of braised spare ribs. Wrapped up in aluminium foil, she would keep it in the oven until we had settled at the dinner table. Piping hot, the ribs were a drenched in a dark wine-red sauce. Pulled out individually from the pot, each rib was a stunning crimson. The meat always had a slight burnt taste to accompany the sweetness of the sauce. At times, I would intentionally sit further away from these dishes—a bleak attempt at self-control.

In the last two months of her life, she struggled with moving around. The new smells from packaged food started banishing the ones we had been used to growing up. These were the aromas from barbecued stingrays, packs of satay, bak chor mee. My grandmother put up her fight by making the single bowl of broccoli with mushrooms. And then even that disappeared from the dining table.

A week before my twenty-first birthday, I told her I was craving bak kut teh. I asked her to teach me how to make it. She told me it was easy:

Boil the pork ribs, sachets of bak kut teh spices, cloves of garlic and peppercorns in a pot. Leave it to simmer for a couple of hours. For the sauce, chop chilli—we use the smaller ones—add some chopped garlic, into soy sauce.

The week after, she made it for me. Her present to me, the last one.

I do not believe it is so easy to make bak kut teh. I have tried to make it, and it is not the same. Maybe it is a different brand of spices. Maybe I the ribs I used were not as good. Maybe I seasoned the soup differently. Maybe I missed something out in the recipe. I had not written it down then. It sounded so simple.

I have written it down now, but I will have to try many times more. There are no proportion measurements in my grandmother’s world. No teaspoons, cups, tablespoons. Only the flick of a wrist, and dashes of sauces—a feeling for making delicious food I wish I had made time to inherit.  

I can barely make out what her dishes look like now. There are only snapshots left in my mind, but as though taken in flurry. None of us have any physical photos. These flavours are slowly fading with each bite of food I take.

I tailed behind my mother with bags of herbs and spices. I hoped she had figured out with my aunts how exactly to use them. Back home, the aroma of briyani from my neighbours’ home wafted into our kitchen. I could myself forgetting the sweetness of those braised pork ribs. I tried to cling on to it, but my tongue was calling out for the spiciness of ayam penyet, sambal belacan, and a million other foods I could easily buy.