Monday, 3 February 2014

Rou Gan (肉干) Bak Kwa

Bakkwa


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


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.

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Mmm…Bak Kwa



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. 

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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.

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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:-1111

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The ultimate bak kwa taste test

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:

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
First up: traditional pork bak kwa, made of either sliced or minced meat
GRASSY SLICED PORK BAK KWA | Its bright orange colour gives the impression that this sliced pork bak kwa ($40 for a 1kg box) from Bee Hock Guan  (Address: Available at all NTUC Fairprice outlets during the CNY period | Tel: 62566666) is old and dried out. And looks sure does maketh this one - the spices are dull too, “like grass”, if that ever was possible.
SWEET, SWEET MINCED PORK BAK KWA | This pale orange offering with charred edges is also from the Fragrance Foodstuff (Tel: 65094207 | Opening hours: Daily 10am to 9.30pm) family. The tender sliced pork bak kwa ($50 per kg) has sweetness comparable to lup cheong (Cantonese dried sausages), and taste reminiscent of cuttlefish. Fragrance subscribes to the ‘buy more, more discount’ model. Discounts aside, there are better options than this.
CRITICS’ PICK | SLICED PORK BAK KWA THAT TASTES LIKE FLOSS | Strange, this sweet and chewy sliced pork bak kwa ($4.80 for 100g) looks more like minced pork and tastes like pork floss. We do like, and clearly our tasters do too: this deep-red select from Kim Guan Guan (Tel: 92705506 or 64589263 | Available only on pre-order via their website, self-collection or home delivery can be arranged, depending on order) scored average to high marks across the board.
STRONG-SMELLING SLICED PORK BAK KWA | This highly-smoky medium-thin sliced pork bak kwa looks like rough slices of meat pasted together ($10 per minimum buy bag of 200g). Low Seng Kim’s offerings are extreme pieces of meat that will not sit well with everyone (most agree they would not buy it); the bak kwa smells strong but tastes bland. Someone picked up “sundried tomatoes”, while more than a few think it’s too tough, “like caramel and cuttlefish.” Approach with a lot of care, perhaps with a peg on the nose, too.
SWEET, DRY SUPERMARKET MINCED PORK BAK KWA | Available at all Sheng Siong outlets during the Chinese New Year period, New Peng Hiang’s medium-thin sliced pork ($19 for 500g) with patches of fat is hardly appealing. But it’s not solely because of this many will not recommend this convenient supermarket-stocked brand – it’s because of the dry texture and the sweetness reminiscent of haw flakes and poorly made char siew.
A “NICE” MINCED PORK BAK KWA | We picked up a tickle of wasabi in the first bite, but the rest disappointed like a failed dream-punch sequence: Sang Hock Guan’s (Address: Block 163, #01-446 Ang Mo Kio Avenue 4 | Tel: 64587374 | Opening hours: Daily 9.30am-10.30pm, or until bak kwa sells out) thick-sheet minced pork bak kwa ($50 per 1kg) is so average we can only say, “it’s, uh, nice?” Not worth making a trip to pick this up, sorry.
SQUID-LIKE PORK BAK KWA | Tung Lok Signature’s (Tel: 63366022 | Opening hours: Daily 9.30am-10pm ) offering (the chilli version was out of stock) is this very thin, translucent honey-glazed pork jerky ($32 for 500g) that tastes like… squid. It’s probably because of the chewiness, and the oil. As a taster observed, “so much oil, so little flavour.” Keep trying, Tung Lok. Note that the timings for picking up bak kwa differ from restaurant timings.

Chilli pork bak kwa

Chilli pork bak kwa
A TOUGH PIECE OF CHILLI MINCED PORK BAK KWA | The cut of this chilli minced pork bak kwa ($52 per kg) reveals it to be of commercial origins: thick-sheet-ed and sliced ruler-straight, Bee Cheng Hiang’s ( Tel: 62237059 | Opening hours: Daily 24 hours) hefty, smoky and densely fatty little bugger requires a lot of chewing. At least the spiciness still manages to stand out a little.
CHILLI SLICED PORK THAT IS TOUGH TO TEAR INTO | It’s of a brooding colour though it smells like bacon. Kim Guan Guan (Tel: 92705506 or 64589263 | Available only on pre-order; self-collection or home delivery can be arranged, depending on order) chilli sliced pork ($4.80 for 100g) is chewy, fibrous and thus a little tough to tear apart with the teeth. Make sure you pay a visit to your dentist before buying this one.
KICKIN’ CHILLI MINCED PORK BAK KWA | Kim Guan Guan’s (Tel: 92705506 or 64589263 | Available only on pre-order; self-collection or home delivery can be arranged depending on order) thin slices of chilli minced pork bak kwa ($4.80 for 100g) is well smoky, chewy and fibrous, with a uniform chilli spice that gets you at the back of your tongue. Recommended for those who love to get their kicks on.
SPICY SLICED PORK BAK KWA WITH UPS AND DOWNS | The dark, sinewy spicy sliced pork ($55 per kg) is sweet at first, then a muted pepper-like spice hits, then sweetness again. Not everyone is on board with Kim Hock Guan’s (Tel: 65352536 | Opening hours: Daily 10am-9pm; post Chinese New Year 10am-8pm) rollercoaster ride.
MEDIUM-TO-VERY SPICY SLICED PORK BAK KWA | This spicy, very thick sheet of sliced pork bak kwa is the “Chilli Sliced Royal Pork” ($38 per kg) from Kim Peng Hiang (Tel: 83681707). We think it tastes a little like otah, but chewy and fibrous with a funny aftertaste. It straddles the fine line between spicy and too spicy. Not recommended if you can’t take the heat. As of 17 January, Kim Peng Hiang's chilli bak kwa is out of stock. Please call ahead to check for stock if you plan to head down to the shop for these.
SOME LIKE THEIR CHILLI SLICED PORK BAK KWA BOLD | The thin, dark meat is actually Lim Chee Guan’s (Tel: 67478945 | Opening hours: Daily 9am -10pm) chilli sliced pork bak kwa ($54 per kg). This is a bold one that you’d either love or hate – fatty, smoky and harsh with the spices underneath that caramelised, glazed exterior.
NUMBINGLY SPICY MINCED PORK BAK KWA | The finely-minced texture of the spicy pork bak kwa ($52 per kg) of Sang Hock Guan (Address: Block 163, #01-446 Ang Mo Kio Avenue 4 | Tel: 64587374 | Opening hours: Daily 9.30am-10.30pm, or until bak kwa sells out) unfortunately renders it chewy in parts, and tough in others. The concealed chilli spice throws down its coat after a few seconds, numbing the tongue. So sadly, that’s all we are able to taste.

Chicken bak kwa

Chicken bak kwa
TOP CHICKEN | MINCED CHICKEN BAK KWA, LIKE SATAY | The pale yellow colour of this Fragrance Foodstuff’s (Tel: 65094207 | Opening hours: Daily 10am-9.30pm) offering let up that this is indeed minced chicken bak kwa ($50 per kg), although a few did think it was uncooked meat. The sweet, sweet slices are cooked to caramelised ridges, and the thin but chewy texture has “satay sauce” in its top notes. If you buy more, Fragrance will give you more discount. Use that saved money to throw in a couple of lontongs (pressed rice cubes), we say!

Beef bak kwa

Beef bak kwa/jerky
SO OBVIOUS IT’S BEEF JERKY | The dark, rendang colour should give this away, and if it doesn’t, the strong smell mixed in with belachan notes should: it’s barbecued beef ($46 per kg) from Lim Chee Guan (Tel: 62278302 | Opening hours: Daily 9am-10pm). We know what it’s not – traditional bak kwa. For beef jerky though, it’s got good texture.

Vegetarian "bak kwa"

Vegetarian "bak kwa"
BEST EFFORT | VEGETARIAN “BAK KWA” | “’Bak kwa’ is not meant to be vegetarian,” mocked a taster, and we would not have agreed if Friendly Vegetarian’s (Address: Block 421, Ang Mo Kio Avenue 10, #01-1165 | Tel: 64566607 | Opening hours: Daily 8am-8pm) overly-chewy danger-red mock-up ($6.50 for a box of 250g) didn’t taste like lup cheong (Cantonese dried sausage), rubber, cotton candy and bad oil rolled into sheets. But you won’t know what you’re missing until you taste it. And if you’ve never had bak kwa, this would be a worthy try, before moving on.

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Five common CNY foods that we get in Singapore

1. Mandarin Oranges


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

The first notable thing about the name of this dessert is that it can be interpreted in two ways – firstly as 黏糕 meaning quite literally “sticky cake” according to the texture of the dessert, and secondly as 年糕 meaning “New Year cake”. Furthermore, cake (糕 gao) can be pronounced the same way as high (高 gao). As you now know, the crazy use of homophones makes the meaning of the word “New Year High”. Thus, this cake describes prosperity every year, something the Chinese find very important.

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.

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relatedChinese New Year cakes & tidbits