Bak kwa, also known as rou gan (肉干), is a dried savoury sweetmeat which traditionally takes the form of thin square slices and is usually made from pork. Bak kwa and rou gan mean “dried meat” in Hokkien and Mandarin, respectively. It is also sometimes referred to as barbecued pork, dried pork or pork jerky. Bak kwa, which has its origins in China, has become a favourite local snack in Singapore, with its popularity peaking during the Chinese New Year period, as evidenced by the long queues at the branches of famous bak kwa chains.
Bak kwa is thought to have derived from a meat preservation and preparation technique used in ancient China. It is also considered a Hokkien delicacy, as it originated from the Fujian province in China, where poverty meant that the consumption of meat was a luxury usually reserved for Chinese New Year. Leftover meat would be 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 immigrants brought this delicacy over to Singapore and Malaysia, it took on local characteristics. For example, while the meat is still air-dried, it is instead grilled over charcoal, which imparts a smokier flavour. The local version is also sweeter than its original counterpart.
The first and oldest bak kwa shop in Singapore is Kim Hock Guan, which was set up in 1905 with the first outlet in Rochor Road. Other major players in the local bak kwa business include Bee Cheng Hiang, Lim Chee Guan, Fragrance Foodstuff and Kim Joo Guan.
There are two main varieties of bak kwa in Singapore, namely the minced pork and sliced pork versions. The minced pork version is prepared by shaping minced meat into slices before grilling them and it is fattier than the sliced pork version, which is leaner and tougher as it is prepared by slicing off 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 popular variant that caters to Singaporeans’ love of 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, ostrich, prawn or lobster meat. Other innovations include bak kwa made from premium pork belly (instead of the normal cuts of pork hind leg), bak kwa containing ginseng, and even a pineapple version where chunks of the fruit are combined with the meat during production.
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 to resemble its namesake. Novel offerings such as heart-shaped and pig-shaped bak kwa have also appeared on the market.
Bak kwa is a popular delicacy all year round. Although demand is highest during the Chinese New Year period, locals also buy bak kwa at other times to enjoy as a snack or to offer as gifts. The popularity of bak kwa is such that it has been incorporated into other local snacks and treats such as bread buns, doughnuts, banana fritters and mooncakes. Foreigners are also fond of this local delicacy, and tourists have been known to buy kilogrammes of bak kwa back to their home countries for their friends and relatives to sample.
Bak kwa and Chinese New Year
Bak kwa is closely associated with Chinese New Year in Singapore as it is considered a staple in the new year celebrations, where 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, some people even consider the queuing for bak kwa to be a Chinese New Year tradition. The queues are sometimes so long that customers have to wait six hours or more for their bak kwa, and Singaporeans have been known to send their employees 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 this period.
The rising prices of bak kwa during the few weeks before Chinese New Year are a common grouse among Singaporeans and some see bak kwa prices as an indicator of inflation in Singapore. In 2007, the preoccupation of Singaporeans with bak kwa prices prompted the Singapore office of Bloomberg News to release a light-hearted Bak Kwa Index which tracked bak kwa prices during the Chinese New Year period by surveying four bak kwa vendors, namely Bee Cheng Hiang, Fragrance Foodstuff, Lim Chee Guan and Kim Hock Guan.
Bak kwa and health concerns
One of the major health concerns regarding bak kwa pertains to its preparation method, as the grilling of the meat over charcoal fire is believed to trigger the formation of carcinogens in the barbecued meat. In addition, the Chinese consider bak kwa a “heaty” food product (a concept in traditional Chinese medicine), where excessive consumption might result in coughs, sore throats and ulcers. Sales of bak kwa were also particularly affected during the Nipah virus outbreak in 1999, which saw Singapore ban live pig imports from Malaysia and Indonesia and caused people to avoid consuming pork products.
Guay Ee Ling
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The information in this article is valid as at 2010 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.