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Figure 1. A square slice of Chinese pork bak kwa (sweet meat jerky).



History of Bak Kwa
Bak kwa is a dried meat product similar to jerky that is a traditional food to Singaporean and Malaysian Chinese populations. It is also known as rou gan, 肉干, in Mandarin and is a popular snack food which is frequently consumed during the Chinese New Year period. These meat pieces are usually made from pork and sold in thin square slices; however beef, mutton, chicken and even vegetarian alternatives have since been produced (Guay, 2010; Chinatownology, 2012). The meat is typically marinated with many spices, sugar, salt and honey, and then dried on racks with temperatures between 50°C to 60°C (Leistner, 1999; Bakkwaking Ltd, 2012; Chinatownology, 2012).
The barbequed pork jerky dates back many centuries to a time where poverty meant that meat preservation was imperative to overcoming barriers in storage, poor technology and shelf-life. Bak kwa originates from a Fujian province in China and encompasses sweet and salty flavours. It is considered a Hokkien delicacy because meat was very costly in the past and refrigeration was not yet available or expensive. This resulted in the reservation of meat consumption, and namely this luxury food item, to special occasions such as the Chinese New Year (Leistner, 1999; Bakkwaking, 2010). In attempts to preserve food, Bak kwa was made by gathering leftover meats from festivals and marinating it with sugar, salt and spices. It was then sliced into thin sheets before air-dried and heated over a hot plate to be kept for later consumption (Guay, 2010). The air-drying process often involved placing many sheets under the sun for several hours but this subsequently attracted many flies. With this said the need for “insect duty/fly swatting” meant that the product was somewhat closely guarded and had the potential to cause the individual great discomfort from the long exposure to high temperatures of the sun (M. Tan, personal communication, April 28, 2012).

Cultural Significance
Being a delicacy item, bak kwa is a very popular gift in Malaysia and Singapore and is often presented to relatives, visitors, acquaintances, in-laws and even amongst important corporate employees. Tourists create a huge market for bak kwa with many wanting to try and buy in kilograms to take back to their home countries as food souvenirs (Guay, 2010; M.Tan, personal communication, April 28, 2012). Most notably is bak kwa and its role as a widely accepted gift during festive seasons such as Chinese New Year. During this time high demands for bak kwa are reflected in the long queues outside bak kwa vendors and queuing may even be seen as a tradition with many using employees and domestic helpers to stand in queues for them. It is known that during this period customers may wait for many hours outside an outlet to buy a well-liked or renowned brand such as Kim Hock Guan, Bee Cheng Hiang, Lim Chee Guan, Kim Joo Guan and Fragrance Foodstuff. Kim Hock Guan is the oldest bak kwa shop in Singapore opening in 1905 and like all the other brands, they pride themselves on their secret recipes which is kept under tight supervision (Bakkwaking Ltd, 2012; Chinatownology, 2012). Bright red is seen as an auspicious colour in the Chinese culture and Bak kwa is regularly sold in red boxes which differ slightly from the past where the meat was wrapped with wax paper on the inside, newspaper on the outside and tied with a piece of string and a red label. To add to the festive atmosphere, bak kwa can be served in religious ceremony dinners and Chinese wedding banquets in the form of small bite-sized circles to resemble “Golden Coins” (RotinRice, 2012; Guay, 2010).




Changes in Bak Kwa consumption over time and other related factors
The method of bak kwa production has fundamentally been unchanged and instead has been improved in many ways. When the Chinese migrated into countries such as Singapore, Malaysia and Taiwan, they brought with them bak kwa and made slight changes to the recipe and methods in production. Local characteristics included the additional charcoal grilling of the meat after air-drying to achieve a more robust smoky flavour. The local versions were also much sweeter and tenderer than the original product. This portrays a growing trend of eating bak kwa for taste rather than for the preservation of food. Improvements in technology and refrigeration did not
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Figure 2. A bak kwa outlet in Singapore selling different meat varieties.
affect bak kwa consumption and even increased it through enhanced storage and freshness. Through economic development families now have more disposable income and bak kwa is now freely available all year round and affordable. It is no longer considered a food item only for the rich and consumed during festive seasons but can now be purchased as an everyday snack placed in sandwiches, salads and consumed with beer and wine to name a few (Guay, 2010; Chinatownology, 2012; Lim, 2011). The more modern versions of bak kwa reveal a more health conscious society and which are attracted to novelty in food choices. There are now two main forms of bak kwa- minced pork and sliced pork. The minced pork being fattier and the sliced pork coming from a large block of meat which is leaner and tougher; more like the original style of Chinese bak kwa. Other versions include a chilli bak kwa which has proven to be very popular amongst Southeast and East Asian populations. Since countries such as Malaysia and Singapore are quite multi-racial, there has been a demand for vegetarian and Halal bak kwa to provide for the Muslim consumers (Chinatownology, 2012; Lim, 2011).


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Figure 3. Bak Kwa on display at a popular Singapore vendor.





Bak kwa has always been seen as a treat food for most and is also known as for its very expensive price tag during the festive seasons. The Singapore office of Bloomberg News released a bak kwa index for the Lunar New Year period for 2011 and prices were as high as NZD$48 per kilo at some vendors. Some Singaporeans claim that these elevated prices can be seen as an indicator to inflation in their country. Its popularity led to the creation of individually wrapped bak kwa which one can purchase in New Zealand for around NZD$4-$6. Even with these high prices, bak kwa sales are still the highest during this holiday period and further exposes the cultural significance of bak kwa and customary gifting traditions (Guay, 2010; M. Tan, personal communication, April 28, 2012) .

Through a nutritional lens, bak kwa has evolved from an ancient meat preservation practice to become a well-sought after delicacy in many Asian countries. Innovative ideas over many decades have shown that bak kwa is also a product of multicultural consumption. Although culturally significant, bak kwa should be consumed in moderation to avoid diet-related diseases (Liestner, 1999; Wong, 2012; Bakkwaking, 2012).


Bak Kwa Consumption and Health
Many health concerns surround bak kwa and its consumption in the Asian population. One of these issues refers to the preparation methods of bak kwa because the use of grilling meat over charcoal fire is believed to increase the formation of carcinogens in the barbequed meat (Guay, 2010). The consumption of these carcinogens in barbequed bak kwa can cause cancer and disrupt cellular processes including DNA damage in cells (National Cancer Institute, 2004). As more of the population begin to consume bak kwa on a normal everyday basis, an implication of this is that the high fat content from the minced meat- often uses more fat than lean mince for tenderness and flavour- can lead to more of the population becoming overweight and an increased risk in obesity and high cholesterol. Some may argue that home-made bak kwa can control for quality of minced meat, sugar and salt and is therefore seen as a healthy alternative. Although it is important to highlight that the ratio of meat to sugar is often 2:1 in most bak kwa recipes and small changes in saturated fat does not mean bak kwa is any less of a treat food (Wong, 2012).
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Figure 4. Charcoal grilling bak kwa.
During Chinese New Year, the consumption of bak kwa is increased dramatically and many consumers eat large quantities forgetting that this food product is often high in fat, sugar and energy. Two slices of bak kwa contain 600kcal of energy and 75% of this energy is provided by the fat in the minced meat and sugar. It is very easy to eat many slices of this salty-sweet pork jerky but individuals need to participate in portion control as two slices of bak kwa can exceed half of the recommended salt intake for adults. Likewise, recent bak kwa products have been added to bread which can significantly increase sodium levels pass the daily recommended levels of 3g -6g. High salt intake has been linked to high blood pressure, stroke, and heart disease and may contribute to osteoporosis (Stroke Foundation, 2012; Singapore Press Holdings Ltd, 2012). Lastly, Chinese populations often explain foods like bak kwa as being “heaty” (a traditional Chinese medicine concept) where profligate consumption can lead to adverse health outcomes such as fevers, ulcers and sore throats. A balance of a “cooling” foods such as water or chrysanthemum tea in large amounts is then needed to counter this effect. This may portray culture as a protective factor against high consumption of bak kwa (Guay, 2010; M. Tan, personal communication, April 28, 2012).

An easy Home-made bak kwa recipe can be found by clicking on this link. Courtesy of Berin, author of Roti n Rice. Copyright 2012 by Rotinrice. Linked with permision.


Reference List

Chinatownology. (2012). Bakkwa (BBQ Meat) 肉干. Retrieved May 1, 2012, from http://www.chinatownology.com/bakkwa.html
Guay, E. L. (2010). Bak kwa. National Library Board Singapore. Retrieved May 6, 2012, from http://infopedia.nl.sg/articles/SIP_1746_2010-12-30.html
Leistner, L. (1999). The microbiological safety and quality of food: Volume 1. Gaithersburg: Aspen Publishers.
Lim, G. (2011). The history of Bak Kwa. Retrieved May 1, 2012, from http://safefoodss.blogspot.co.nz/2011/03/how-did-bak-kwa-came-about.html
National Cancer Institute. (2004). Chemicals in Meat Cooked at High Temperatures and Cancer Risk. Retrieved May 1, 2012, from http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Risk/cooked-meats
RotinRice. (2012). Retrieved May 10, 2012, from http://www.rotinrice.com/2012/01/bak-kwa-long-yoke-korn-dragon-meat-for-the-year-of-the-dragon/
Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. (2012). How fattening is a piece of bak kua? Retrieved May 10, 2012, from http://www.yourhealth.com.sg/content/how-fattening-piece-bak-kua
Stroke Foundation of New Zealand Inc. (2012). Salt Reduction Campaign. Retrieved May 13, 2012, from http://www.stroke.org.nz/stroke-salt-reduction-campaign
Wong, J. (2012). Ba Kwa – Is it good for you?. Retrieved May 13, 2012, from http://www.coachjon.com/blog/ba-kwa-is-it-good-for-you/1713/

Figures
Figure 1. A square slice of Chinese pork bak kwa (sweet meat jerky).
Note. From Roti n Rice. Retrieved May 13, 2012, from
http://www.rotinrice.com/2012/01/bak-kwa-long-yoke-korn-dragon-meat-for-the-year-of-the-dragon/
Copyright 2012 by Rotinrice. Reprinted with permission.

Figure 2. A bak kwa outlet in Singapore selling different meat varieties.
Kiwidutch. (Photographer). (2010). Singapore backstreets where a different sort of shopperholic hangs out! [Photograph], Retrieved May 13, 2012, from
http://kiwidutch.wordpress.com/2010/06/13/new-15/

Figure 3. Bak Kwa on display at a popular Singapore vendor.
Bakkwa Seller in Singapore [Photograph]. (2007). Retrieved May 10, 2012 from
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Bakkwa_BCH_Singapore.jpg

Figure 4. Charcoal grilling bak kwa.
I Eat I Shoot I Post. (Photographer). (2010). Charcoal is still the only way to grill your Bak Kwa. Retrieved May 10, 2012, from
http://ieatishootipost.sg/2010/01/kim-joo-guan-bak-kua-bak-kwa-101.html