Heritage Hero: Ng Ah Sio Bak Kut Teh
How this hawker went from a street cart selling Teochew-style peppery pork soup in post-war Singapore to becoming an international brand name.
11 January 2019
Rangoon Road lies just off the bustling district of Little India, a quiet four-lane thoroughfare lined with shophouses. These days, the gentrifying neighbourhood is a mish mash of third-wave coffee joints, hardware shops and little eateries. More unusually, the street is known for a beloved local dish — a number of bak kut teh shops call Rangoon Road their home, the most established being Ng Ah Sio Bak Kut Teh
, which set up shop there in 1988.
Named after founder Ng Siak Hai’s nickname, Ng Ah Sio serves up its signature peppery Teochew-style pork ribs soup made from the same recipe that dates back all the way to the 1950s when Ng’s father started selling bak kut teh from a streetside cart in the present-day River Valley and Hill Street vicinity.
“I was still a very young child back then, but I remember that bak kut teh was only 80 cents a bowl and the fried you tiao were short fritters, unlike the long ones we have today,” he says. He recalls seeing his father wake up at 5am every day to cook the bak kut teh. “He only prepared about 20 jin (12kg) of pork ribs a day. It sold out very quickly — we often had customers who complained that they had made wasted trips as we no longer had any left when they came to dine.”
Growing up in a Teochew household, Ng was raised on a diet of simple Teochew dishes, light, nourishing soups, steamed fish and his father’s bak kut teh. Bak kut teh, which translates directly to “meat bone tea”, is a rich soup brewed from pork ribs and cloves of old garlic and other aromatics. While there are several varieties of this soup, the Teochew style stands out for its lighter coloured base and peppery kick, eaten with steamed rice and fried dough fritters, and usually accompanied with a strong brew of Chinese tea to cut through the richness of the broth.
Bak kut teh is usually eaten with rice, fried you tiao and cut chillies in dark soya sauce. (Pic: Ng Ah Sio Bak Kut Teh)
In the 1960s, Ng started working for his father at his stall, shadowing him and learning the intricacies of making a hearty bowl of bak kut teh. Till today, the same meticulous care is put into every step of the process, from the special blend of soya sauces used to enhance the flavour of the broth to the selection and grinding of the peppercorns that impart their distinct spice into the soup. “My father was very particular,” he says.
On 1 December 1977, Ng took over the business after his father’s retirement and began serving the crowds at iconic New World Amusement Park with seven staff, renaming the restaurant Ng Ah Sio Pork Ribs Soup Eating House. “When I took over, I made some changes such as extending the operating hours to cater to more customers and added more seats.”
"Meat bone tea" is so named because the soupy dish is traditionally accompanied by Chinese tea (Pic: Ng Ah Sio Bak Kut Teh)
Business for Ng Ah Sio boomed in the 1980s. Even as the crowds began to wane at the ageing New World Amusement Park, regulars still thronged to the eating house for their fix of Ng’s invigorating soup. When the bright lights of the amusement park were turned off for the last time in 1987, Ng moved his eatery to nearby Rangoon Road, where it has operated since 15 March 1988.
Like his father, Ng continued to run a tight ship, handling much of the daily operations personally, cooking and serving customers. Soon, word of Ng Ah Sio’s bak kut teh travelled out of Singapore, drawing foreign visitors, celebrities and foreign dignitaries alike. Most memorably, the restaurant made headlines when former Hong Kong leader Donald Tsang was deprived of a tasting when he visited after closing hours.
Ng Ah Sio moved to Rangoon Road in 1988 (Pic: Ng Ah Sio Bak Kut Teh)
In 2010, Ng Ah Sio was brought under the JUMBO Group of restaurants, in which Ng also owns a majority stake. While a meal at the old flagship still feels like the most authentic bak kut teh experience — even though Ng no longer personally cooks the soup — these days you don’t have to brave a queue for a bowl of soup with three other Ng Ah Sio outlets across Singapore in Marina Bay Sands, Resorts World Sentosa and Chui Huay Lim Club.
Last year, the JUMBO Group expanded the Ng Ah Sio brand to Taiwan, opening its first overseas franchise restaurant in Shin Kong Mitsukoshi Mall in Taipei on 26 July. There are plans in the pipeline to open at least 19 more outlets serving its famed peppery pork soup.
Ng Ah Sio's Rangoon Road flagship today. (Pic: Ng Ah Sio Bak Kut Teh)
Ng Ah Sio may have come a long way since its humble beginnings as a stall in an amusement park, but its founder still insists on staying true to the authenticity of his heritage dish. He says: “Even with these new outlets, we continue to stay true to our Teochew roots with our traditional recipe and we pride ourselves in using only quality ingredients to ensure that our bak kut teh is always one of the best.”