Bak kwa (dried, barbecued meat) has undergone quite a metamorphosis over the decades. Once a roadside stall staple, even its reputation has been a masterclass in transformation, with sleek new stores and artful packaging now representing the dried meat’s increasingly premium quality.
“We have been working to change the perspective of bak kwa, like we invested in creative designs so the packaging doesn’t look old,” says Raymond Khue, the executive director of popular bak kwa brand Oloiya.
“So there is a glam effect with bak kwa now – it is no longer considered a roadside stall affair; instead it has become a premium product. In fact, with the price of ingredients going up, bak kwa has become more and more expensive, but people are still buying it,” says Khue
Also in keeping with the times, the core structure of bak kwa has evolved and grown alongside consumer appetite. These days there are even permutations to its traditional square shape, with variants like coin-shaped and heart-shaped options also on offer.
In recent years, fruit-infused bak kwa has also taken off, and you can now find fruity concoctions like pineapple, dragonfruit, lychee and even durian bak kwa.
Eateries have also been quick to launch trendy new iterations. In high-end eateries like Raymond Tham’s Beta, there is even the option of ordering hand-made truffle bak kwa!
Khue meanwhile launched Bak-off.com, an offshoot of Oloiya designed to highlight unusual bak kwa flavour pairings and keep up with the appetite for shiny, new flavours.
“We are always doing new things to surprise our followers. Our best-sellers are still the traditional flavours, but we wanted to modernise so we launched flavours like nasi lemak, tom yum, mala, bak kut teh and salted egg yolk bak kwa, where we blended natural ingredients and infused it into the meat. We are constantly trying to create different things to penetrate new markets,” he says.
Over the past few years, alcoholic bak kwa has also taken off. Khue has done multiple collaborations with beer, whisky and cognac brands and all these collaborations have typically sold out.
Yap Sin Kee who runs home bak kwa business XinJi BBQ sells both a traditional bak kwa as well as a whisky-infused one and says sales of the whisky option far surpass the regular variant.
“A lot of people come back for the whisky bak kwa,” he says.
Clearly, the future of bak kwa is rife with possibilities and bak kwa producers are constantly looking for ways to expand their market presence with interesting new options for different market segments.
Khue for instance has noticed a niche – but growing – interest in veganism, which has spurred him to try developing plant-based bak kwa – if he can get it right, that is.
“We are still doing R&D on vegan bakwa. We actually did a few rounds of plant-based bakwa, but the taste was so bad! It is not easy to achieve, but hopefully in one or two years’ time, we can come up with a product as part of our diversification strategy,” he says.
Diversifying seems to be key to bak kwa’s continued market growth and for Khue, the natural way to propel bak kwa into the future is to enter the halal market and make inclusive Malaysian-made bak kwa that can be enjoyed by all.
“I have a lot of Muslim friends and I cannot share my products with them. I actually did a halal beef bak kwa sample and shared it with my Malay-Muslim friends and they really liked it.
“So I want to move into the halal market and proudly introduce a truly Malaysian bak kwa, created by Malaysians for all Malaysians,” says Khue.