Poetry: Bak Kut Teh (Pork Ribs Tea) by Godwin Tan



Godwin Tan is a Master of Law candidate at Queens’ College, University of Cambridge, and holds a Bachelor of Laws from University College London. His poems have been published in various anthologies, including The Cambridge Pamphlet (CUPPS 2018) and Happy Birthday to Me: A Collection of Contemporary Asian Writing (Dahlia Publishing 2010).


Bak Kut Teh (Pork Ribs Tea)


First, four hundred grams of pork ribs cut in a way that requires

no explanation to a reticent Chinese butcher who on most mornings

could be found in yellow boots and a white round-neck tee shirt,

the decorated uniform of a veteran shouting commands in the

battlefield of fish, slime and calculated chatter. Here, the butchers

around the corner don chequered shirts and cotton aprons. They wrap

their meats with pleasantries and observations about the weather.

Earlier today, I paid nine and a half minutes and two strange looks;

repeated specifications, as if they were voiced in a different language.


Second, two cloves of garlic stripped to their yellow-brown core,

taking the shape of my mother’s heart as she waits 14 hours away

and struggles to envisage the bizarrely barren birches her son

mentioned in a pixelated stutter last Saturday.

Of course, birches do not grow where rain trees flourish.


Next, a spoonful of dark soy sauce, followed by light soy sauce,

bought as imported products in the bottom corner of an obscure shelf

at the grocery store whose name my father can barely utter.

If one feels daring, one may imagine him, as he always does,

laboriously trying to learn the sounds and syntax that do not

flow as his heart intends; his charred fingers are too big to pinpoint

syllables on a page. I let the mix of pepper, salt and sugar settle into

the bottom of the pot and turned the ignition knob.


Then, boil for forty minutes and stir regularly. Pray earnestly that

the full-bodied aroma which emanates from this thick herbal broth

does not nauseate your hall mates who do not share the same childhood.


Finally, serve in a white ceramic bowl with a pair of porcelain chopsticks

branded with red roosters, fearsome dragons and the experience of

learning one’s true name in strokes and characters.

For a moment, in the warmth of this soup, I am not alone.


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