What is Bak Kwa?

Bak kwa, also known as rougan (肉干) in Chinese, is a dried savoury sweetmeat that traditionally takes the form of thin square slices and is usually made from pork. What is Bak kwa and rougan, meaning “dried meat” in Hokkien and Mandarin respectively, also refer to barbecued pork or pork jerky. Originating from China, bak kwa has become a favourite local snack in Singapore and Malaysia, with its popularity peaking during Chinese New Year, as evidenced by the long queues at the branches of famous bak kwa chains during the festive period.

History

Bak kwa is thought to have derived from a meat preservation and preparation technique used in ancient China. It is considered a Hokkien delicacy as it originated from Fujian province where the consumption of meat was considered a luxury usually reserved for Chinese New Year. Pork was preserved by slicing the meat into thin sheets and marinating them with sugar and spices, before air-drying the slices and cooking them over a hot plate. When this delicacy found its way to Singapore and Malaysia, it took on local characteristics. For example, after the meat is air-dried, it is grilled over charcoal, which imparts a smokier flavour. The local version is also sweeter than the original version.

Description and varieties

There are two main varieties of bak kwa in Singapore, namely the minced pork and sliced pork versions. The minced pork version, which has a higher fat content, is prepared by shaping minced meat into slices before grilling them. The sliced version is leaner and tougher as it is made from pork slices that have been cut off from solid blocks of meat.

Over the years, a number of variants using different types of meat and ingredients have been introduced. For instance, chilli pork bak kwa is a variant that caters to those who like spicy food, while bak kwa made of chicken or beef have been produced as alternatives for those who do not consume pork. There are also more exotic varieties such as those made with duck, crocodile, emu, prawn, ostrich or lobster meat.

Ingredients

Other newfangled innovations include bak kwa made from premium pork belly (instead of the normal cuts of pork hind leg) or containing ingredients like ginseng, cheese, garlic and even pineapple, where chunks of the fruit are combined with the meat during production. Alternatives marketed as healthy versions of bak kwa can also be found these days, such as turkey bak kwa and a thin, crispy version made from the less fatty pork loin and without any preservatives, monosodium glutamate or artificial food colouring.

Shapes

Bak kwa is commonly sold in the form of thin square sheets, although there are variants such as the “golden coin”, which is bak kwa cut into small circles. Other novel offerings such as pig-shaped bak kwa made from kurobuta pork and heart-shaped bak kwa have also appeared on the market.

Bak kwa and Chinese New Year

Bak kwa is closely associated with Chinese New Year in Singapore as it is considered a staple during the new year celebrations, when it is commonly offered to guests during visits or presented as gifts to friends and relatives. In the run-up to the festivities, long queues will form at popular bak kwa outlets, especially those in Chinatown. Instead of being deterred by the long queues and pricey bak kwa, some people even consider queuing for bak kwa to be a Chinese New Year tradition.

The Long Queues

The queues are sometimes so long that customers have to wait six hours or more for their purchase, and Singaporeans have been known to send their employees, foreign construction workers or domestic helpers to stand in the queue for them. To prevent their supplies from running out, popular outlets usually impose buying limits on their customers during the festive period. In recent years, however, some people have eschewed the long queues and headed to bak kwa stalls at hawker centres to buy the barbecued meat. The quality and consistency of these bak kwa as well as the prices, which are a little cheaper than those at the bigger outlets because of lower overheads, have contributed to the longevity of these stalls – some of them have been around for more than 40 years. Some have also come up with innovative ideas to attract customers such as offering online booking and delivery service.

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