Snapshots from Asia: Bak Kwa, Chinese Pig Candy


I like to think I'm serious about food, but every so often, someone or something comes along to make me question the extent of my devotion. Like when a friend returned to the States from a trip home to Singapore, toting three pounds of bak kwa (Chinese barbeque pork). Stopped at customs and threatened with confiscation and destruction, he said, "I need a minute," before proceeding to eat his entire booty of pig.

If you're wondering what the challenge is in downing grilled meat, well, it ain't just any grilled meat, buddy. It's pig candy—the same candied bacon pork lovers have been aflutter about. That's three pounds of charred, caramelized pig, my friends. Singaporeans use the word jelat to refer to the sickening sense of overindulgence one gets from eating too much of a good thing. By the time said friend was done, he was, in local slang, "jelat until can die" and looked it.

Which was a shame, as there was a group of homesick students eagerly awaiting a share of his stash. What's interesting though, is that—sweet as it is—not one of us had ever thought of bak kwa as candy. Despite the fact that bak kwa roti—a popular snack of bak kwa and sweet buttercream stuffed in a soft roll and crowned with fluffy pork floss—sounds mightily dessertlike in hindsight.

Traditionally, bak kwa is made from minced meat marinated with nam pla, soy sauce, cooking wine, and sugar. The raw mix is flattened into sheets and dried in the sun before being grilled over a charcoal fire. These days, you can opt for "gourmet" bak kwa made from strips of bacon, and the process of sunning is skipped in favor of a before-your-very-eyes grill on an electric barbeque. Bak kwa is big business year-round in Singapore, but driven by Chinese New Year-gifting, its sales peak in February, despite hour-long lines and cut-throat price hikes.

Besides regular bak kwa, there are fragrant bak kwa pies encased in pâte brisée and studded with sesame seeds, cheesy bak kwa bites individually vacuum-packed for emergency sustenance, and, if your palate is still left wanting, Bee Cheng Hiang (one of the local bak kwa heavyweights) distributes recipe cards for dishes such as bak kwa fajitas and bak kwa fried rice. Our Muslim friends aren't left out of the festivities, of course—there are halal chicken and beef bak kwa versions called dendeng, which taste remarkably similar to the original.