Friday, February 12, 2016

Bak Kwa for Chinese New Year

Are you celebrating Chinese New Year? It’s typical to celebrate the holiday for a full week. I am still learning about this most important holiday which comes with so many traditions relating to food. There are many symbolic foods that ensure good fortune. There are also foods which are served to friends, family and guests and given as a gift. Bak Kwa is one such food. It might resemble beef jerky, but it’s much tastier and is much more than just a snack and considered a must-have for Chinese New Year celebrations in Malaysia. 
I recently tried locally made Bak Kwa from Little Red Dot for the first time at the Fancy Food Show where it was a big hit. The Singaporean founders of the company missed eating it so much, that after unsuccessfully trying to get their parents to send them some from Singapore—it never made it out of customs—they set out to make it themselves. Several years later the product is finally showing up in stores. Because it’s something that is eaten as a snack but also at holidays I asked Chef Alex Ong who grew up in Malaysia, about his recollection of Bak Kwa and this is what he told me. 

“Bak Kwa is definitely one of my favorite childhood eats. Traditionally my mom would only buy it during Chinese New Year for guests who come and visit us as part of the Chinese New Year celebrations. I remember helping my mom cut it into little squares with a pair of scissors so she can arrange it in a little bowl to be presented along with other Chinese sweets, cookies and snacks for our guests. Of course it usually ended up me with cutting one piece and eating two pieces.

Nowadays it is readily available throughout the year and people buy them for special occasions or as a business gift for business associates. There is a street in Kuala Lumpur where there are a group of vendors grilling these pork Bak Kwa over charcoal fires out in the open and you can smell the amazing aroma of sweet grilled meat from blocks away.

Of course, everyone has their favorite stores. Some like theirs super tender, some look for a nice chew, some not too sweet, some insist on only using ground pork but they can all agree that life is definitely better when you are chewing on a piece.” 

Linda Susanto and Lyndel Soon from Little Red Dot told me their Malaysian version differs from the Chinese version which typically uses preservatives and coloring. Little Red Dot makes a healthier and much more tender, softer product, using better meats from suppliers like American Homestead Natural Meats and Diestel Turkey. It’s also less oily and lower in sodium, made in a USDA certified facility ensuring quality.

The meat is marinated in their own spice blends for flavor and preservation, then slow roasted and slowly grilled which gives a little bit of smokiness. It also comes in different flavors. Susanto and Soons told me that both the turkey and pork are traditional Asian recipes, similar to what they had growing up. The spicy chipotle beef and hickory smoked uncured spicy candied bacon were developed to cater to the tastes of a broader audiences. So far the beef is the most popular, and the candied bacon second most popular. You can purchase it online or at select retailers.