MALAYSIAN FOOD IS well represented in Melbourne, but what many Australians familiar with laksa and roti canai may not have heard of is the Malaysian Chinese herbal soup, bak kut teh. ‘Bak kut teh’ literally translates as ‘meat bone tea’, although it isn’t made with any oolong – instead, the name is thought to have derived from the copious cups of Chinese tea that are traditionally consumed alongside the dish.
Bak kut teh is made with pork ribs braised in an earthy concoction of spices such as star anise, garlic, pepper and cloves with mushrooms, greens, okra and tofu puffs. Aunty Franklee’s version has all of the above plus a few generously sized pork meatballs. It’s herby and comforting, but surprisingly not as full-bodied or fragrant as we’d expect from something stewed with 23 herbs and spices. Mind you, we’ve got no complaints about the addition of crisp Chinese doughnuts for dunking in the broth.
This East Malaysian family-run restaurant specialises in this staple broth, which explains the hordes of young Malaysian students crammed into the long and narrow restaurant. The family ethos underpinning Aunty Franklee is most evident in the novel method of ordering. Illustrated postcards are strewn across the table in place of an average menu, tracing not only each dish’s historical origins but the cultural significance it occupies within the owners’ family. Waitstaff take customers’ orders as they read their preferred choices from the postcards; it’s an interesting, albeit slightly cumbersome approach. Although bak kut teh is the star – both the wet and dry versions – there’s also barbecued meats, char kuay teow, mother hen soup and prawn egg noodles. The drinks menu is brief – the lemon barley is warm and comforting, while the Borneo milk tea provides a sharp and sweet injection thanks to its use of coconut sugar.