Bak kwa is the Hokkien dialect pronunciation of Rou gan (肉干), a Chinese salty-sweet dried meat product similar to jerky. It originated from the Fujian province in China where it is considered a Hokkien delicacy. Bak kwa is made with a meat preservation and preparation technique originating from ancient China. The general method for production have remained virtually unchanged throughout the centuries, but the techniques have been gradually improved. It is often made with beef, pork, or mutton, which are prepared with spices, sugar, salt, and soy sauce, while dried on racks at around 50°C to 60°C
Nowadays, products with a softer texture, lighter color, and less sugar are preferred. The bak kwa products with the higher water content, thus having softer texture, and lower sugar content are generally known as the shafu type of bak kwa. Nevertheless, shafu can have similar shelf life as other types of bak kwa. The meat is most commonly served plain and in square-shaped slices in the form of flat thin sheets.
Bak kwa is immensely popular in Singapore and Malaysia where it is usually eaten during Chinese New Year. When Chinese immigrants brought this delicacy over to Singapore and Malaysia, it began to take on local characteristics. A notable example lies in the preparation of Bak kwa, where the meat once still being air-dried is instead grilled over charcoal. This imparts a smokier flavor to the meat. The Singapore and Malaysia versions of Bak kwa are also sweeter than its mainland China counterpart with many different variations adapted to suit the local palette such as chilli bak kwa.
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 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.
Fussy, choosy and kiasu – these words best describe Singaporeans’ attitude towards one of their favourite festive foods, bak kwa (barbecued sliced pork).
Three generations (and counting!) of Singaporeans grew up loving this quintessentially Hokkien delicacy that is usually consumed during the Chinese New Year season, as evidenced by the long queues outside popular bak kwa stalls days before the festive season.
Sometimes, you do not have a choice other than to stand in line if you wish to make sure you have that thin slice of Chinese sweetmeat.
The ultimate bak kwa taste test
Happy Chinese New Year! Have you guys started eating bak kwa?
Every year, my family will usually buy the famous bak kwa brands like Fragrance or Lim Chee Guan. After joining the Hungrygowhere team for The Ultimate Bak Kwa Taste Test, I was shocked to see so many bak kwa brands in Singapore!
Man, we ate 35 different varieties of bak kwa, from the usual sliced pork, to spicy pork, chicken, beef and even vegetarian! All the packaging were removed from each kind of bak kwa, and they were cut into small pieces with a number attached to each.
There you have it, 35 bak kwa flavours! I guess you will have a hard time searching for the best so here are some of my recommendations:-
The ultimate bak kwa taste test
We chewed on 35 varieties of bak kwa - from the traditional barbecued pork slices to beef jerky, chicken and mock meats - to narrow in on the best in Singapore
The Lunar calendar's festive season promises to bring prosperity to our snacking bellies, and there is nothing we hunger for more during Chinese New Year than bak kwa. We braved the sweltering heat and ten-deep (oftentimes more) queues to taste test 35 kinds of barbecued meats.
From traditional to chilli pork, chicken, beef and even a vegetarian version, we tried them sliced, minced, glazed and grilled to charred goodness. Our discerning tasters judged the meat-sheets for smokiness, tenderness, sweet, savoury and fatty qualities. Among our bak kwa list are the most expensive bak kwa in Singapore and Tung Lok's offering. Loosen those drawstrings, this is going to a meaty ride:
Traditional pork bak kwa, made of either sliced or minced meat
Chilli pork bak kwa
Chicken bak kwa
Beef bak kwa
Vegetarian "bak kwa"
Five common CNY foods that we get in Singapore
Image source: blog.bobsredmill.com
The reason for the popularity of these fruits in symbolising good luck is in the similarity of the chinese words Orange (橘子jú zi) and Good Luck (吉利 jí lì). In many parts of the Chinese culture, homonyms often become suggestive of another over time. With its bright colour that signifies prosperity, oranges also represent happiness and good fortune.
Mandarin Oranges are given during Chinese New Year in pairs so that they form the shape of an 8, another sign of good luck and prosperity in Chinese culture. One interesting thing to note though is that, if you receive an orange with a leaf or stem attached to it, it could be a hint for you to get pregnant as that is a symbol of fertility!
2. Yu Sheng
Image credit: hungrygowhere.com
Typically known as Lo Hei in Singapore, Yu Sheng is probably the most over-priced Chinese salad that you’ll get at this time of the year. Have you ever stopped to wonder why we pay so much just for a large platter of grated vegetables, crushed peanuts, honey, oil and crackers topped with fresh salmon sashimi? Well, the simple reason behind it: The Homonym Phenomenon. Each ingredient represents a different thing, which are all to bring believers good fortune. Also, since the belief is that the higher you toss the ingredients the more luck you will bring in, the aftermath is often a very messy one.
It’s fun to lo hei (Lo Hei is as much a noun as it is a verb, particularly in Singapore) because everyone gets in on the action; kids are happy because they get to join the adults, make a mess and pick out crackers; adults have an excuse to play with their food. It gets really loud too, as all sorts of Chinese sayings are yelled across the table, for good fortune and prosperity.
3. Nian Gao
Image source: thailandtatler.com
Sometimes, restaurants shape the Nian Gao to look like fish – think of the Chinese phrase 年年有余 (nian nian you yu) which means to have surpluses for the year.
4. Melon Seeds
Image source: tcmwiki.com
Seeds stand for fertility, abundance, harvest and remind people of the good things to come. Melon seeds or gua zi, in particular, implies “many sons”, offered in the hope that the family will have many sons to carry on the family name.
5. Bak Kwa
Image credit: ieatishootipost.sg
Finally, Singaporeans’ most coveted Chinese New Year snack. Thousands of people queue for this scrumptious fatty snack for hours rain or shine during the New Year season. This barbecued pork jerky has an unbeatable flavour – offering a good combination of both sweet and salty tanginess. The word Bak Kwa comes from the Hokkien dialect but is pronounced in Cantonese as Loong Yoke, which has a similar pronunciation to Dragon’s meat, justifying the exorbitant price tag at this time of the year (Dragons are another prosperous symbol in Chinese culture).
With all that information in mind, it is clear that the Chinese are plagued and fueled by crazy superstitions. However, since this is all part of our tradition, perhaps the next time you eat something you will consider what is the true symbolism behind it.
related: Chinese New Year cakes & tidbits