One of the most delectable aromas in Asian Chinatowns is the smell of Bak Kwa being roasted on a charcoal brazier in a nearby restaurant. Interestingly, there are Chinatowns even in predominantly Chinese cities like Kuala Lumpur, Penang, and Singapore where things feel more Chinese. In Kuala Lumpur there is Petaling Street or Chee Cheong Kai (Starch Factory Street, a reference to its root as a tapioca producing district), in Penang there is Campbell Street or Sin Kay (New Street), and in Singapore there is South Bridge Road in an area known as Gu Chia Chui (Bullock Cart Water, a reference to the carts that used to haul in drinking water). When it comes to buying the best Bak Kwa (or any other traditional Chinese products for that matter), Chinatowns are the natural choice.
No Lunar New Year celebration is complete without boxes of these wafer thin pieces of pork jerky with an unbeatable combination of sweet and salty flavors. Not to mention that most people will swear that the Bak Kwa from their favorite hometown restaurant has absolutely the best taste in the whole wide world. Bak Kwa means dried meat in the Hokkien/Fujianese dialect. It is known as Yoke Korn in Cantonese. Kuala Lumpur has yet another name for it called Long Yoke. No one is exactly sure how this name came about. Maybe someone dubbed it as such with an intended pun on the word Loong Yoke, which means “Dragon’s Meat” in Cantonese to justify its exorbitant price tag. Many still refer to it that way, sometimes to the amusement of others. I’m sure that approaching the Year of the Dragon, Bak Kwa sellers everywhere hope for some of that sheer dragon-ness to rub off on the sale of their meat products!
Gifts are a must when visiting family and friends during the Chinese New Year. These gifts are not your usual gifts for they consist mainly of auspicious-sounding foods like…
Kum – mandarin oranges for wealth and prosperity. This is a must and be sure to give an even number of fruits 2, 4, 6, 8 and never 3 or 5. Eight is of course the best!
Nian Gao – year cakes for careers, wealth and health to step higher
Fa Sang – peanuts for longevity
Kua Chee – melon seeds for fertility
Ha Peang – shrimp crackers for joy and laughter
Ong Lai – pineapple for prosperity
Pau Yue – canned abalone for guaranteed abundance
Ho See – dried oysters for good business
Fatt Choy – and dried see moss for good fortune
You would also do well by your mother-in-law if you presented her with gifts of Bak Kwa, plump Chinese mushrooms, and a big-fat ang-pow (red packet with money). Gifts must be given respectfully with both hands and accepted with both hands.
The color red is considered auspicious and gifts are usually accompanied with red packaging or a red label. Today, Bak Kwa is usually packaged in a red box. In the “old days” they were wrapped with wax paper on the inside and newsprint on the outside, tied with string, and attached with a red label.
When opened, you will see this pile of glistening, delicious meat.
Bak Kwa is always well received as a gift but it can be very expensive. Making it at home is very economical and fairly simple. I have never made it before but decided to take the plunge when I saw it on Sonia’s blog, Nasi Lemak Lover. Besides it being a treat for the family, I could not pass up making some “dragon’s meat” for the Year of the Dragon.
It may seem like a lot of work but it is actually quite simple. It was even easier with store-bought ground meat. You can of course mince your own but do make sure there is enough fat content or you will end up with a very hard and dense Bak Kwa. I used the regular ground meat which has not more than 25% fat in it.
My first batch came out looking more like beef jerky as the meat was spread a little too thick. It also felt like there was insufficient fat in the meat. I made a double batch (2 pounds of meat) yielding 3 trays of Bak Kwa. During the pre-cooking stage, there was lots of juices left in the pan which I had to blot it up with paper towels. Still, it was very tasty.
I made some changes to the recipe for my second batch by omitting the honey to reduce the liquid content. I also replaced the light soy sauce with dark soy sauce as I did not have dark caramel soy sauce. In both batches, I did not use oyster sauce as I seldom use it in my cooking. I added a little sesame oil for flavor and fat. This time I also made sure I got the layer of meat down to 2mm thick by spreading it onto parchment paper with a butter knife and then smoothing it out with a rolling pin. I was able to make 2½ layers with just one pound of meat! I was ecstatic with the results!
- 1 lb (450g) minced pork, with less than 25% fat
- 1 tbsp dark soy sauce
- 1 tbsp Mui kwe lu (Chinese rice wine with rose)
- 1 tsp fish sauce
- ½ tsp sesame oil
- ¼ tsp five-spice powder
- ¼ tsp pepper
- ½ tsp salt
- 1/3 cup (75g) sugar
Combine all ingredients in a large bowl. Mix well with a sturdy serving spoon for about 2 minutes. Mixture will turn gooey. Cover and refrigerate for at least 4 hours or overnight.
Prepare 3 sheets of parchment paper the size of a jelly roll pan (15.5in x 10.5in). Spread a thin layer of meat mixture with a butter knife onto parchment paper. The meat layer should be about 2mm to 2.5mm thick. Leave an inch around the perimeter of paper clear of meat for easy handling. Place a large piece of shrink wrap over the meat. Using a rolling pin, roll over meat to smoothen and even out the spread meat. Remove shrink wrap. Repeat with the other two sheets of parchment paper. The third sheet will be about half filled. Transfer to jelly roll pan and bake in a 250°F (120°C) oven for 15 minutes.
The partially cooked meat should be nice and dry**. When it is cool enough to handle, cut pre-cooked meat into 6 slices. Increase oven temperature to 425°F (220°C). Transfer meat and parchment paper to a broiler pan this time and grill for approximately 5 minutes. Meat burns easily at this stage. Adjust time accordingly. Remove from oven. Flip slices of meat over with a pair of thongs. Return pan to oven for another 5 minutes.
Remove and cool completely on a wire rack.
**If meat layer is too thick, juices may ooze out. Blot with paper towels if necessary.
This concludes my series of Chinese New Year posts. I hope you have enjoyed them and will try out some of the dishes listed here. Please click on the picture to get to the recipe.
After the feast on New Year’s eve (on Sunday, Jan 22, 2012), I am finally ready for a leaner, healthier diet with a decent exercise regime. These past two months of feasting has taken a toll on my figure.