Bak kwa


Bak kwa, also known as rougan (肉干), is a dried savoury sweetmeat that traditionally takes the form of thin square slices and is usually made from pork. Bak kwa and rougan, meaning “dried meat” in Hokkien and Mandarin respectively, also refer to barbecued pork or pork jerky.1 Originating from China, bak kwa has become a favourite local snack in Singapore, 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.2

History
Bak kwa is thought to have derived from a meat preservation and preparation technique used in ancient China.3 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.4


The first and oldest bak kwa shop in Singapore is Kim Hock Guan, which was set up by two brothers in 1905 with the first outlet on Rochor Road.5 Other major players in the local bak kwa business include Bee Cheng Hiang, Lim Chee Guan, Fragrance and Kim Joo Guan.6 The bak kwa business is so competitive that bak kwa companies zealously guard their marinade recipe and refuse to divulge sales figures or the amount of raw pork purchased for making bak kwa during Chinese New Year.7 The marinade is likely to consist of salt, pepper, sugar, honey, soya sauce, rice wine, five-spice powder and fish sauce.8

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.9


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.10 There are also more exotic varieties such as those made with duck,11 crocodile,12 emu,13 prawn,14 ostrich or lobster meat.15

Other newfangled innovations include bak kwa made from premium pork belly (instead of the normal cuts of pork hind leg)16 or containing ingredients like ginseng,17 cheese,18 garlic19 and even pineapple, where chunks of the fruit are combined with the meat during production.20 Alternatives marketed as healthy versions of bak kwa can also be found these days, such as turkey bak kwa21 and a thin, crispy version made from the less fatty pork loin and without any preservatives, monosodium glutamate or artificial food colouring.22

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.23 Other novel offerings such as pig-shaped bak kwa made from kurobuta pork24 and heart-shaped bak kwa25 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 snacks and treats such as cookies,26 bread buns,27 doughnuts,28 banana fritters,29 pizzas30 and even mooncakes.31 Foreigners are also enamoured of this local delicacy, and tourists have been known to cart kilogrammes of bak kwa back to their home countries for their friends and relatives.32 Singaporeans working or studying overseas can also get their bak kwa fix with individually packed vacuum-sealed bak kwa slices sold by some retailers as these have a longer shelf-life compared with fresh bak kwa.33

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.34 In the run-up to the festivities, long queues will form at popular bak kwa outlets, especially those in Chinatown.35 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.36


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.37 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 about 20 percent 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, and replacing and re-delivering new bak kwa to dissatisfied customers.38

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.39 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” that tracked bak kwa prices during the Chinese New Year period by surveying four bak kwa vendors – Bee Cheng Hiang, Fragrance, Lim Chee Guan and Kim Hock Guan.40

The lucrative bak kwa business has also resulted in instances of vendors in Chinatown in Singapore and in Batu Pahat in Malaysia touting their bak kwa as the products from well-known brands. These vendors use the same packaging as the original brand but sell the meat at much lower prices, causing much confusion among customers, who were also worried that contaminated pork might have been used. The public was advised not to purchase bak kwa from unlicensed street vendors.41

Health concerns
One of the major health concerns in the consumption of bak kwa pertains to its preparation method, as the grilling of the meat over charcoal fire is believed to trigger the formation of carcinogens (cancer-causing compounds) in the barbecued meat.42 In October 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer of the World Health Organisation announced that processed red meat has been classified as “carcinogenic to humans (Group 1), based on sufficient evidence in humans that the consumption of processed meat causes colorectal cancer”.43


In addition, the Chinese consider bak kwa a “heaty” (a colloquial term used to describe food that has been fried, baked or barbecued) food product where excessive consumption might result in a cough, sore throat, ulcers, sore eyes, pimple outbreaks and dry stools.44

Bak kwa sales were affected during the Nipah virus outbreak in 1999, when people avoided pork products and Singapore banned live pig imports from Malaysia and Indonesia.45

In February 2016, after email messages began circulating that the bak kwa sold in Singapore were made in China and may contain rat, fox and mink flesh, the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) allayed public fears with a Facebook message stating that the majority of the bak kwa sold in Singapore is produced locally from raw pork sourced from countries such as Australia, Brazil and Spain. In addition, the AVA said that authenticity tests are conducted on all imported meat products, which are accompanied with health certificates issued by the overseas authorising bodies.46



Authors

Guay Ee Lin & Veronica Chee



References
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The information in this article is valid as at 2016 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.

 

Subject
Ethnic foods
Cookery>>Cooking methods>>Barbecue and grilling
Ethnic Communities>>Food
Cookery, Singaporean
Barbecuing--Singapore

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