Sunday, July 6, 2014

Bak Kwa or Grilled Chili Pork Jerky

Ground pork, seasoned with soy sauce, brown sugar and Shaoxing wine, and grilled over charcoal is a traditional favorite in Singapore and Malaysia. It’s popular all year round but demand increases during the Chinese New Year celebrations. 

I was a young slip of a girl of 18 when I first traveled to Asia. My father moved to Jakarta, Indonesia from Venezuela right after my graduation from high school. Back in the days before long-range airplanes, any trip from Houston to Jakarta meant at least two stopovers so, before the final plane ride, I took a rest stop in a hotel in Singapore and I knew that I had found my people: Those who eat fried rice and spicy noodles and congi and curry for breakfast. And grilled chili pork as a snack.

I was wandering up Orchard Road window-shopping when the most tantalizing aroma overtook me. It was sweet and smoky and meaty. Farther along, I found the source in a row of traditional Peranakan houses where a smiling grill man of uncertain mental acuity was standing just inside the open window, turning squares of flat meat over a large charcoal fire. Despite his white singlet, he was red-faced from the heat and glistening. He moved the pieces about the grill, turning each until it was the perfect blend of succulently cooked pork and crispy, scorched fatty bits, finally depositing them in a large metal tray, while constantly adding new pork squares to the grill. This bak kwa or chili pork was sold by the kilo, wrapped first in waxed paper then sealed in a plastic bag.

I dare say that over the years I have eaten my weight in chili pork, returning time and time again to my scantily clad friend on Orchard Road, until the developers in Singapore decided to “renovate” Peranakan Place and the original bak kwa shop was closed to make way first for a cultural center and later for more tourist friendly restaurants. I mourned until I found another source. Now the shops are almost everywhere, even in Changi, the award-winning Singapore airport. And the old Peranakan building now boasts a clean, modern bak kwa store where you can’t watch them grill the pork but you can buy it for take away. Sadly, bak kwa hasn’t made its way to Dubai, so here, I have to make my own. It’s not exactly the same because the pork in Singapore is much fattier that what we can buy, but, you know what? That’ll do, pig, That’ll do.

This week Sunday Supper’s theme is Summer Chillin’ – food that can be served cold. Bak kwa is not refrigerated in the shops despite being made without preservatives, additives or colorants. Just eat it within a few days of making it though, if it lasts that long. Many thanks to our wonderful host, Alaiyo from Pescetarian Journal for hosting this great theme.

My bak kwa was adapted from these two posts on Just As Delish and No-frills Recipe. Shannon and Cheah are food bloggers from Malaysia and kindred spirits in my spicy food loving world.

While researching recipes, I came across this taste test and thought I’d include the link for anyone traveling to or living in Singapore. So many types of bak kwa now!

1/3 cup, packed and well-rounded, or 75g dark brown sugar
5 teaspoons light soy sauce
1 tablespoon Shaoxing or Chinese cooking wine
4 teaspoons honey
1 tablespoon canola oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cayenne
1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
1 1/2 lbs or 670g ground or minced pork (The fattier, the better!)

Preheat your oven to 265°F or 130°C.

Put all of your ingredients up to but excluding the pork in a food processor and mix well.

Add in half the pork and mix again.

Add in the rest of the pork and process one last time.

Line a large baking tray with heavy duty foil.

Spread the pork mixture out in the pan as evenly as you can.

Cover with a piece of cling film and try to smooth it out even more with your hands.

Remove the cling film and bake in the preheated oven for about 30 - 40 minutes or until fully cooked and kind of rubbery looking.

Remove from the oven and allow to cool. Pour off any juice that may have accumulated in the foil. Take the whole thing out of the pan and put it on a cutting board. Loosen the meat from the foil and cut into squares.

Sometimes it’s hard to get the meat evenly thin so feel free to slice any thicker pieces in half with a sharp knife. (If you are not ready to grill immediately, wrap the bak kwa in cling film and refrigerate until grilling time.)

Grill over hot coals, moving the pork squares around and turning them frequently until they are charred and crispy in places and soft and chewy in others. This is very quick, taking only a couple of minutes on each side.

Serve with an ice cold glass of Tiger beer, if you can get your hands on some.

This is a great starter or snack to serve your guests before the rest of the barbecue. I mean, as long as you are firing up the grill, right? Or bring it along to a picnic, no refrigeration necessary.


Are you looking to beat the heat? Check out all the cool drinks, dishes and desserts the Sunday Supper crowd has got for you this week!

Brisk Beverages
Chilled Starters
Snappy Salads and Sides
Refreshing Main Dishes
Cool Confections

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