The enduring appeal of bak kwa during CNY in Malaysia and Singapore


Barbecued meat is a popular snack, especially during Chinese New Year.

There is nothing that precipitates Chinese New Year quite like the heady allure of bak kwa. The sweet-smoky slices of dried, barbecued meat are compulsory acquisitions for many Malaysian and Singaporean Chinese during this auspicious period and it isn’t uncommon to see serpentine queues trailing outside large specialty bak kwa stores.

During the festive season, the dizzying, intoxicating aroma of bak kwa can often also be detected emerging from the carts of roadside vendors who understand only too well that the olfactory pull of bak kwa is half of its charm.

But just how did bak kwa become such a ubiquitous Chinese New Year festive treat anyway?

Well, according to an article on Singapore Infopedia (a Singapore government agency website), bak kwa originates from the Fujian province in China and is a Hokkien delicacy that was devised to preserve the shelf life of meat, which was a luxury back then and consequently was only enjoyed during festive seasons, like Chinese New Year.

While the original version of bak kwa from the Fujian province was just cured and air-dried, the Malaysian version is barbecued or grilled to give it a pleasant char. — OLOIYAWhile the original version of bak kwa from the Fujian province was just cured and air-dried, the Malaysian version is barbecued or grilled to give it a pleasant char. — OLOIYA

“Chinese New Year is always winter time in China. So back then, they used to go out and hunt before winter and cure the animals with salt and sugar and a process called dehydration. It was basically leaving the meat outside their houses to age naturally, kind of like the local daging salai,” says Raymond Khue, the executive director (and third-generation owner) of popular local bakwa brand Oloiya.

When Chinese immigrants started arriving in Malaysia from the Fujian province – most notably in the 19th and 20th centuries when migration was at its peak – they reputedly brought the recipe (and knowledge) of this dried meat snack with them.

While the early progenitor of bak kwa was a purely cured, air-dried pork snack, over time it was tweaked and subsequently the dried meat was barbecued over a hot charcoal fire, lending the local iteration of bak kwa a smoky, lingeringly addictive aftertaste.

Malaysian bak kwa is also sweeter and juicier than its counterpart in China, which tends to be drier and consequently has a longer shelf life.

Bakwa production

One of the earliest bak kwa producers to emerge in then-Malaya was Kim Hock Guan, which was set up in 1905 by two brothers in Singapore. Another early 20th century bak kwa producer is the now-famed Bee Cheng Hiang brand from Singapore, which was birthed in 1933 when Chinese immigrant Teo Swee Ee began peddling his homemade barbecued meat in Chinatown.

Many commercial bak kwa producers emerged in the 1970s and 1980s. Pictured here is Oloiya’s first stall in Petaling Street, which opened in 1970. — OLOIYAMany commercial bak kwa producers emerged in the 1970s and 1980s. Pictured here is Oloiya’s first stall in Petaling Street, which opened in 1970. — OLOIYA

What is interesting is that while bak kwa was at first largely a Hokkien treat enjoyed by the many migrants from Fujian who landed in Malaysia, the emergence of local producers and the exchange of recipes among migrants from the Orient meant that bak kwa eventually became a beloved snack enjoyed by most members of the overall Chinese community in Malaysia, regardless of where their ancestors came from.

Still, right up until the 1960s, bak kwa remained a largely home-spun affair in Malaysia, especially in rural areas where access to bak kwa stalls and retailers was lacking.

“I learnt how to make bak kwa from my 82-year-old mum. We grew up in a kampung in Penang and those days, kampung folk learnt how to make everything themselves, because so many things were not within our reach and often too expensive to buy.

“So my mother learnt how to make it from other Chinese neighbours in our area and she modified and improved it. As a child, I used to help her make it,” says Nicole Ann Ng, 55, who has been making and selling homemade bak kwa for 30 years now under her mantle Nicole’s Homemade.

Ng has been making and selling homemade bak kwa for 30 years and says it is not easy to master, which is why most people opt to purchase bak kwa from commercial producers or home businesses. — NICOLE ANN NGNg has been making and selling homemade bak kwa for 30 years and says it is not easy to master, which is why most people opt to purchase bak kwa from commercial producers or home businesses. — NICOLE ANN NG

The 1970s and 1980s marked a turning point when the pendulum swung firmly towards commercially-produced bak kwa.

This turn of events was driven by two main factors: the proliferation of commercial bak kwa producers and the economic boom in the 1980s which led to increased prosperity and the ability to purchase bak kwa; as opposed to making it at home.

Many famed Malaysian bak kwa producers emerged during this glorious era, from Loong Kee Dried Meat, which started in 1976 to Wing Heong, which started operations in 1972.

Khue’s grandfather Khue Chow Kong was also one of the success stories of this period and opened his first Oloiya stall in 1970 and his first store in 1978, after refining a bak kwa recipe shared by a devoted Taiwanese customer.

Khue also credits his maverick grandfather with being one of the earliest to develop and build a strong link between bak kwa and Chinese New Year, one that has endured so successfully that the two entities are now naturally always associated with each other on the local front.

“My grandfather was quite innovative back then. In the 1980s, he worked on a lot of collaborations with brandy and whisky brands (also CNY staples) and helped turn bak kwa into a CNY must-have.

Bak kwa and CNY became very strong acquainted with each other from the 1980s onwards, so much so that queues were and still are the norm in many bak kwa stores. — OLOIYABak kwa and CNY became very strong acquainted with each other from the 1980s onwards, so much so that queues were and still are the norm in many bak kwa stores. — OLOIYA

“So nowadays, people feel like during CNY, they have to buy bak kwa. And this CNY bak kwa culture is only very strong in Malaysia and Singapore.

“In China, Hong Kong and Macau, bak kwa is just a snack to be enjoyed throughout the year, but here people queue up to buy bak kwa every CNY,” says Khue.

In fact, bak kwa has such potent local magnetism that it is now a recognised word in the Oxford English Dictionary with part of its definition being that it is “popular in Malaysia and Singapore”.

This huge demand has had a massive festive trickle-down effect as these days, it is not just specialty producers that are making bak kwa. Restaurants and even unassuming retailers like Swedish giant Ikea have picked up on this CNY surge and now cater to it by producing their own versions of bak kwa.

For large-scale commercial producers like Oloiya meanwhile, CNY is their golden period. In fact, according to Khue, Oloiya now sells about 300 tonnes of bak kwa just during the CNY period!

The making of bak kwa

There are two kinds of bak kwa now readily available in Malaysia – sliced and minced.

In the old days, bak kwa was often barbecued over charcoal fire, but many producers have given up using this for health and safety reasons. — Photos: OLOIYAIn the old days, bak kwa was often barbecued over charcoal fire, but many producers have given up using this for health and safety reasons. — Photos: OLOIYA

While the original bak kwa recipe calls for pork, these days you can find chicken (Oloiya was the first to introduce this in Malaysia), beef and even ostrich versions (popularised by local brand Wing Heong).

The sliced version of bak kwa is the more traditional variant and was likely the version that was first brought to our shores by the early wave of Chinese immigrants. In this incarnation, a slab of pork is cut into slices and barbecued, often yielding thicker, tougher slices of meat.

The minced meat version is newer and according to Khue, his grandfather was the one who introduced it to the Malaysian market over 40 years ago.

“When you slice and barbecue meat the traditional way, it is harder to chew and it’s not very easy for the elderly and young children to bite into it. So my grandfather thought of a way to make the meat softer and that is how we became the first to make minced bak kwa in the overall Malaysian market,” says Khue.

Khue is constantly thinking of innovative new ways to introduce Oloiya bak kwa to new market segments in Malaysia. His future plans include a halal expansion plan to allow all Malaysians to try bak kwa.Khue is constantly thinking of innovative new ways to introduce Oloiya bak kwa to new market segments in Malaysia. His future plans include a halal expansion plan to allow all Malaysians to try bak kwa.

Minced bak kwa is essentially meat (chosen based on a lean meat to fat ratio deemed suitable) that is put through a mincer and then shaped into slices before barbecuing. This style of bak kwa is often thinner and quite tender, making it much easier to chew on.

According to renowned Singaporean cookbook author and culinary instructor Christopher Tan – who makes homemade bak kwa and has taught others to make it too – the basic process of making bak kwa remains essentially the same, regardless of whether it is commercially made or not.

“The traditional bak kwa process is quite straightforward, and remains the same whether carried out in a domestic kitchen or commercial kitchen. First, marinate minced pork or sliced pork.

“Then shape it into thin sheets, either by pressing out the pork mince, or by laying out the pork slices like tiles. Traditionally the sheets are laid on open-weave rattan trays (to dry).

“Next, the bak kwa is cooked at a low temperature, traditionally over a charcoal fire. After that, the sheets are cut to size, then barbecued at a high temperature, traditionally over coal again, until it picks up a bit of char and smokiness.

“Good bak kwa is distinguished by the finesse of the details and the precision of the cooking – the selection of pork cuts, the marinade makeup, the marination time, the forming of the sheets, the cooking temperatures and durations and the skill and flair of the barbecuer,” explains Tan.

Tan says he knows very few people who make bak kwa at home. He taught himself to make bak kwa a few years ago and now periodically teaches others how to make it. — CHRISTOPHER TAN/THEKITCHENSOCIETYSGTan says he knows very few people who make bak kwa at home. He taught himself to make bak kwa a few years ago and now periodically teaches others how to make it. — CHRISTOPHER TAN/THEKITCHENSOCIETYSG

The old way of cooking over charcoal fire was one of the major selling points of Malaysian and Singaporean bak kwa but some local producers have now given up doing this, for health and safety reasons.

In fact, for commercial producers like Oloiya (which has an ISO certification), many of these processes are now machinated to ensure consistency, hygiene and sanitation.

“In the past, we used charcoal to barbecue. Charcoal gives the meat a nice fragrance but there are a lot of hygiene issues with charcoal so we actually transformed the process into a more machinery-based one. So now we use ovens to cook the meat.

“But there are still parts of this process that a machine cannot replace, like we still use human manpower to spread the minced meat into thin layers – this cannot be replaced because the pressure exerted by a machine is very different and cannot give the texture that is needed,” says Khue.

A whole lot of effort

Making bak kwa requires patience and some degree of skill, as producing a batch can take up to three days, from the marination overnight (marinades can be made up of salt, sugar, five-spice powder, soy sauce, Chinese wine and fish sauce, to name a few) to the drying and barbecuing. Also because of the dehydration process, yield is significantly less than the original volume of meat.

For commercial bak kwa producers, some of the processes of bakwa-making are now machinated to ensure hygiene and sanitation standards are met. — OLOIYAFor commercial bak kwa producers, some of the processes of bakwa-making are now machinated to ensure hygiene and sanitation standards are met. — OLOIYA

For example, 1 kilo of meat will often only elicit 600 grams of bak kwa. This means that there is not a lot to show for the amount of effort put into making this delicacy. Which is why it is hardly surprising that most busy urbanites with little time to spare now simply prefer to buy from commercial producers or experienced home businesses every CNY.

“I think even people who have made it before at home realise how hard it is to do repeatedly, so they give up, because it is a lot more convenient to just buy bak kwa,” says Ng.

“Like for me, the shortest amount of time I take to make a batch of bak kwa is three days. And this is a recipe I have perfected over 30 years!

“I use pork knuckle and put it through a mincer, so I get 80% lean meat and 20% fat, which to me is the perfect ratio.

“Then after dehydrating it, I use an electric grill to cook the meat, so I have to make sure the thickness is more or less the same, because imagine if some pieces are thicker and some are thinner and I am cooking them all at the same temperature!” explains Ng.

Still, the Covid-19 pandemic has given rise to an increasing number of home businesses that have bak kwa at their heart. Khue says he too has observed this rising number of businesses, but says that he has seen very few that are able to keep up with commercial variants.

Yap started his business to pay homage to the old-school taste of bak kwa, which was smokier than modern versions. —  XINJI BBQYap started his business to pay homage to the old-school taste of bak kwa, which was smokier than modern versions. — XINJI BBQ

“Making bak kwa is not easy and to get it consistently good is hard. I have seen a lot of homemade bak kwa nowadays and I tried ordering a lot of them. But I see that they have issues handling volume, consistency and even food delivery. We have been doing this for 40 years, so our experience is our strength,” he says.

An upside of this renewed interest in bak kwa production at home is that it has also brought forth small home producers looking to imbibe some of the traditional practices once associated with bak kwa.

Yap Sin Kee, 67, for example recently started his home business XinJi BBQ in homage to his late mother and the nostalgia-laced bak kwa he remembers from his youth.

“My mother’s recipe is over 80 years old and was passed down from my grandmother. She used to make it during festive seasons and I found her recipe and decided to play around with it, because I feel like the traditional taste of bak kwa has been lost.

“Everything is so industrialised and cooking techniques have changed and to me personally it has altered the actual taste of bak kwa. The original version had a smoky taste but now I feel what I used to taste in my younger days is no longer there,” says.

Yap makes his bak kwa in small batches by hand and smokes the meat with durian wood to get the smoky flavours he feels has been missing in contemporary bak kwa.

“People who like it say it tastes really different and they can really detect the smoky notes. Others who are used to the modern taste of bak kwa prefer the sweeter versions available everywhere, so I guess it’s either you love it or you hate it,” he says, laughing.

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