The Lunar calendar's festive season promises to bring prosperity to our snacking bellies, and there is nothing we hunger for more during Chinese New Year than bak kwa. We braved the sweltering heat and ten-deep (oftentimes more) queues to taste test 35 kinds of barbecued meats. From traditional to chilli pork, chicken, beef and even a vegetarian version, we tried them sliced, minced, glazed and grilled to charred goodness. Our discerning tasters judged the meat-sheets for smokiness, tenderness, sweet, savoury and fatty qualities. Among our bak kwa list are the most expensive bak kwa in Singapore and Tung Lok's offering. Loosen those drawstrings, this is going to a meaty ride:
First up: traditional pork bak kwa, made of either sliced or minced meat
THE PEOPLE’S CHOICE | THE ULTIMATE SLICED PORK BAK KWA BALANCE | Bee Cheng Hiang (Tel: 62237059 | Opening hours: Daily 24 hours) seems to have the right formula: the medium-thick sliced pork bak kwa ($50 per kg) may come across as a little tough and dry, but its sweet, medium-smoky and slightly fatty blend generally scored well.
GRASSY SLICED PORK BAK KWA | Its bright orange colour gives the impression that this sliced pork bak kwa ($40 for a 1kg box) from Bee Hock Guan (Address: Available at all NTUC Fairprice outlets during the CNY period | Tel: 62566666) is old and dried out. And looks sure does maketh this one - the spices are dull too, “like grass”, if that ever was possible.
BEST MASS APPEAL | SLICED PORK BAK KWA THAT SITS WELL | These medium-thin, very chewy, fibrous and smoky sliced barbecued pork slices ($48 per kg) from Bee Kim Heng (Address: Blk 32 New Market Road, #01-1010 People's Park Food Centre | Tel: 65350735 | Opening hours: Daily 10am-9pm) is a slightly sweeter, factory-made-like version; this bak kwa does well on the street – a taster describes it as “legit” and most would recommend it to friends. A safe buy.
THICK, TOUGH SLICED PORK BAK KWA | It is because of the thickness and denseness of these dark red/brown sheets of sliced pork ($4.20 for 100g) that makes Chai Ho Satay and Dried Pork's bland-on-the-inside, honeyed-on-the-outside offering tough to bite into.
DISAPPOINTING KUROBUTA PORK BAK KWA | We had high hopes for Fragrance Foodstuff’s (Tel: 65094207 | Opening hours: Daily 10am to 9.30pm) individually-packed Fortune Pig bak kwa ($35 for 500g box) – so cute! – but these matte-orange strips turned out like dried out prosciutto (dry-cured ham), with a bit of a herbal profile. To sum it up: it passed off as “leftovers”, came off as “artificially sweet” and “tastes like a not good slice of char siew”. Don’t let your swooning get ahead of yourselves.
SWEET, SWEET MINCED PORK BAK KWA | This pale orange offering with charred edges is also from the Fragrance Foodstuff (Tel: 65094207 | Opening hours: Daily 10am to 9.30pm) family. The tender sliced pork bak kwa ($50 per kg) has sweetness comparable to lup cheong (Cantonese dried sausages), and taste reminiscent of cuttlefish. Fragrance subscribes to the ‘buy more, more discount’ model. Discounts aside, there are better options than this.
CRITICS’ PICK | SLICED PORK BAK KWA THAT TASTES LIKE FLOSS | Strange, this sweet and chewy sliced pork bak kwa ($4.80 for 100g) looks more like minced pork and tastes like pork floss. We do like, and clearly our tasters do too: this deep-red select from Kim Guan Guan (Tel: 92705506 or 64589263 | Available only on pre-order via their website, self-collection or home delivery can be arranged, depending on order) scored average to high marks across the board.
The situation room: there were over 30 tasters who scored each bak kwa according to how sweet, savoury, smoky, fatty and fibrous each sheet is. Tasters also gave comments on how the bak kwa looked and whether they would recommend the bak kwa to family and friends.
HARD-TO-SWALLOW SLICED PORK BAK KWA | “Thick”, “hard” and “dry” are the operative comments, and we agree. We also suspect Kim Hock Guan (Tel: 65352536 | Opening hours: Daily 10am-9pm; post Chinese New Year 10am-8pm) mixed in dried orange peel to their sliced pork bak kwa ($50 per kg) – not that that helps matters much.
UNEVENLY FATTY SLICED PORK BAK KWA | Kim Hock Seng Seng Kee (Address: 32 Keong Saik Road | Tel: 62214882 | Opening hours: Daily 11.30am-2am; last day of sales is 8 February 2013) has been making their own bak kwa in the back of their Keong Saik shophouse for decades now, confided the friendly auntie-owner. Unfortunately the sliced pork bak kwa ($50 per kg) makes for tough bites and is rough-looking, like candied pork with big chunks of fat. It prickles us to mention that it is not an appealing one to keep in a clear jar on the living room table.
CRITICS’ PICK | NUTTY, TASTY MINCED PORK BAK KWA | The auspicious deep red of Kim Hwa Guan’s (Tel: 90062026 | Opening hours: Daily 7am until stocks last) thinner-than-most minced pork bak kwa has a rounded, sweet-but-slightly-salty, slightly nutty flavour ($50 per kg). This was one of few bak kwas that scored consistently high. Sharpen your elbows and strengthen your hamstrings for this People’s Park stall – the queue will snake through the hawker tables.
GRANDMOTHER’S PICK | VERY SMOKY SLICED PORK BAK KWA | Brand loyalty is hard to alter – despite how many types we serve her, our editor’s grandmother still only gets in line for this brand. Lim Chee Guan (Tel: 62278302 | Opening hours: Daily 9am-10pm), grills up well-charred sheets of sliced pork bak kwa ($52 per kg) that look tough and dry (probably from sitting in the cases). We do like that the smoky pork melts into a gamey, liver-like texture when chewed. But of course, not everyone likes this.
STRONG-SMELLING SLICED PORK BAK KWA | This highly-smoky medium-thin sliced pork bak kwa looks like rough slices of meat pasted together ($10 per minimum buy bag of 200g). Low Seng Kim’s offerings are extreme pieces of meat that will not sit well with everyone (most agree they would not buy it); the bak kwa smells strong but tastes bland. Someone picked up “sundried tomatoes”, while more than a few think it’s too tough, “like caramel and cuttlefish.” Approach with a lot of care, perhaps with a peg on the nose, too.
SWEET, DRY SUPERMARKET MINCED PORK BAK KWA | Available at all Sheng Siong outlets during the Chinese New Year period, New Peng Hiang’s medium-thin sliced pork ($19 for 500g) with patches of fat is hardly appealing. But it’s not solely because of this many will not recommend this convenient supermarket-stocked brand – it’s because of the dry texture and the sweetness reminiscent of haw flakes and poorly made char siew.
A “NICE” MINCED PORK BAK KWA | We picked up a tickle of wasabi in the first bite, but the rest disappointed like a failed dream-punch sequence: Sang Hock Guan’s (Address: Block 163, #01-446 Ang Mo Kio Avenue 4 | Tel: 64587374 | Opening hours: Daily 9.30am-10.30pm, or until bak kwa sells out) thick-sheet minced pork bak kwa ($50 per 1kg) is so average we can only say, “it’s, uh, nice?” Not worth making a trip to pick this up, sorry.
SQUID-LIKE PORK BAK KWA | Tung Lok Signature’s (Tel: 63366022 | Opening hours: Daily 9.30am-10pm ) offering (the chilli version was out of stock) is this very thin, translucent honey-glazed pork jerky ($32 for 500g) that tastes like… squid. It’s probably because of the chewiness, and the oil. As a taster observed, “so much oil, so little flavour.” Keep trying, Tung Lok. Note that the timings for picking up bak kwa differ from restaurant timings.
GAMEY SLICED PORK BAK KWA | Xin Dong Fang’s – also known as New Eastern Jerky Café (Address: Blk 151A, Bishan Street 11, Stall 23 | Tel: 62412959 | Opening hours: Daily 10am-9.30pm) – sliced pork bak kwa ($40 per kg) look like sinews, is not smoky nor fatty or tender, and has a gamey flavour underneath its tough bites. “Like preserved duck slices,” one taster noted. We can’t decide if that is right or wrong.
Chilli pork bak kwa
A TOUGH PIECE OF CHILLI MINCED PORK BAK KWA | The cut of this chilli minced pork bak kwa ($52 per kg) reveals it to be of commercial origins: thick-sheet-ed and sliced ruler-straight, Bee Cheng Hiang’s ( Tel: 62237059 | Opening hours: Daily 24 hours) hefty, smoky and densely fatty little bugger requires a lot of chewing. At least the spiciness still manages to stand out a little.
A TOUGH, CHARRED SLICED CHILLI PORK BAK KWA | There is a strange aftertaste to Chai Ho Satay and Dried Pork’s slightly spicy, unevenly-charred dense sliced pork bak kwa ($4.40 for 100g) that we can’t quite put our fingers on; could be soy sauce, which also might explain the darker-than-most colour. This is a tough one – to bite into.
CHILLI SLICED PORK THAT IS TOUGH TO TEAR INTO | It’s of a brooding colour though it smells like bacon. Kim Guan Guan (Tel: 92705506 or 64589263 | Available only on pre-order; self-collection or home delivery can be arranged, depending on order) chilli sliced pork ($4.80 for 100g) is chewy, fibrous and thus a little tough to tear apart with the teeth. Make sure you pay a visit to your dentist before buying this one.
KICKIN’ CHILLI MINCED PORK BAK KWA | Kim Guan Guan’s (Tel: 92705506 or 64589263 | Available only on pre-order; self-collection or home delivery can be arranged depending on order) thin slices of chilli minced pork bak kwa ($4.80 for 100g) is well smoky, chewy and fibrous, with a uniform chilli spice that gets you at the back of your tongue. Recommended for those who love to get their kicks on.
SPICY SLICED PORK BAK KWA WITH UPS AND DOWNS | The dark, sinewy spicy sliced pork ($55 per kg) is sweet at first, then a muted pepper-like spice hits, then sweetness again. Not everyone is on board with Kim Hock Guan’s (Tel: 65352536 | Opening hours: Daily 10am-9pm; post Chinese New Year 10am-8pm) rollercoaster ride.
SPICIEST BAK KWA | ALARMINGLY HOT SLICED PORK BAK KWA | The half-marinated presentation is poor. Unfortunately, that also translates to the taste: Kim Hock Seng Seng Kee’s (Address: 32 Keong Saik Road | Tel: 62214882 | Opening hours: Daily 11.30am-2am; last day of sales is 8 February 2013) bright red chilli sliced pork bak kwa ($50++ per kg) is alarmingly spicy. Bummer, as the uncle and auntie who run this shop are still – after so many decades – passionate about their bak kwa. They still make all of theirs from scratch in the back of this shophouse.
CRITICS’ PICK | WELL-BALANCED CHILLI MINCED PORK BAK KWA | This bright and festive-coloured chilli minced pork bak kwa ($54 per kg) from Kim Hwa Guan (Tel: 90062026 | Opening hours: 7am till stocks last ) scores as consistently well as its evenly charred borders. Each piece is smoky and tender, with a balanced sweetness that is spiked with savoury notes. The smokiness from the charcoal and small amount of fats smoothens the sweetness, while the spiciness slips right under the radar. Thumbs up. As of 17 January, Kim Hwa Guan's chilli bak kwa is out of stock. Please call ahead to check for stock if you plan to head down to the shop for these.
SATAY-LIKE CHILLI SLICED PORK BAK KWA | Spicy, nutty and harsh on the spices, like the charred parts of a stick of satay – mutton satay to be exact. Except these medium-thick sheets are really Kim Joo Guan’s (Tel: 62255257 | Opening hours: Daily 10am-8pm) chilli sliced pork ($49 per kg). Unfortunately we’re not too hot for the heavy and harsh spices. As of 17 January, Kim Joo Guan's chilli bak kwa is out of stock. Please call ahead to check for stock if you plan to head down to the shop for these.
MEDIUM-TO-VERY SPICY SLICED PORK BAK KWA | This spicy, very thick sheet of sliced pork bak kwa is the “Chilli Sliced Royal Pork” ($38 per kg) from Kim Peng Hiang (Tel: 83681707). We think it tastes a little like otah, but chewy and fibrous with a funny aftertaste. It straddles the fine line between spicy and too spicy. Not recommended if you can’t take the heat. As of 17 January, Kim Peng Hiang's chilli bak kwa is out of stock. Please call ahead to check for stock if you plan to head down to the shop for these.
SOME LIKE THEIR CHILLI SLICED PORK BAK KWA BOLD | The thin, dark meat is actually Lim Chee Guan’s (Tel: 67478945 | Opening hours: Daily 9am -10pm) chilli sliced pork bak kwa ($54 per kg). This is a bold one that you’d either love or hate – fatty, smoky and harsh with the spices underneath that caramelised, glazed exterior.
NUMBINGLY SPICY MINCED PORK BAK KWA | The finely-minced texture of the spicy pork bak kwa ($52 per kg) of Sang Hock Guan (Address: Block 163, #01-446 Ang Mo Kio Avenue 4 | Tel: 64587374 | Opening hours: Daily 9.30am-10.30pm, or until bak kwa sells out) unfortunately renders it chewy in parts, and tough in others. The concealed chilli spice throws down its coat after a few seconds, numbing the tongue. So sadly, that’s all we are able to taste.
SMOKE-SOAKED THIN MINCED CHILLI PORK BAK KWA | These thin, bright red, chilli minced pork bak kwa ($45 per kg) from Xin Dong Fang – also known as New Eastern Jerky Café (Address: Blk 151A, Bishan Street 11, Stall 23 | Tel: 62412959 | Opening hours: Daily 10am-9.30pm) with strong pork flavour chars at the edges. The thinness renders the bak kwa dry and a little hard post-grill, and it soaks up so much smoke the spice is masked in the nose. “Tastes like Pizza Hut drumlets,” compared a taster.
Chicken bak kwa
THE PEOPLE’S CHOICE | MINCED CHICKEN BAK KWA FOR THE MASSES | This glossy minced chicken bak kwa ($50 per kg) had everyone confused: it is hard, chewy and glossy with high fat content, much like it was made up of satay fats. We identified a strong fishy smell, while another taster asked, “why does this taste like peanuts?!” “It’s like eating sweetened rubber,” pouted another to a handful of tasters who thought this oily pick to be “not bad.” The plethora of flavour might explain how Bee Cheng Hiang (Tel: 62237059 | Opening hours: Daily 24 hours) appeals to the masses.
HARD CHICKEN JERKY | These “Ayam BBQ” slices ($4 for 100g) of Dendeng House (Tel: 67478945| Opening hours: Daily 11am-7pm) minced chicken are unevenly fatty, though they “look most like pork among all the non-pork bak kwa.” This dry-looking, fat-splattered jerky makes for hard bites. Does not keep well.
TOP CHICKEN | MINCED CHICKEN BAK KWA, LIKE SATAY | The pale yellow colour of this Fragrance Foodstuff’s (Tel: 65094207 | Opening hours: Daily 10am-9.30pm) offering let up that this is indeed minced chicken bak kwa ($50 per kg), although a few did think it was uncooked meat. The sweet, sweet slices are cooked to caramelised ridges, and the thin but chewy texture has “satay sauce” in its top notes. If you buy more, Fragrance will give you more discount. Use that saved money to throw in a couple of lontongs (pressed rice cubes), we say!
TOO-SWEET MINCED CHICKEN BAK KWA THAT TASTES LIKE PORK | This one with the colour of chicken satay is another one to have with lontong: Kim Peng Hiang’s (Tel: 83681707) minced chicken bak kwa ($42 per kg) is smooth and chewy, and hits all the high fatty, smoky and (too) sweet notes. Ironically, it tastes a little like fried luncheon meat. We’ll let you debate this one. As of 17 January, Kim Peng Hiang's chicken bak kwa is out of stock. Please call ahead to check for stock if you plan to head down to the shop for these.
Beef bak kwa/jerky
HALAL CHILLI BEEF JERKY | “Tastes like McDonald’s, or Goodyear, made this,” remarked a taster. The mildly-spiced deep-brown jerky ($4 for 100g) has a medium-rare beef patty taste – rightfully, it’s vastly different from pork bak kwas, so admittedly the comparison values are different. A good halal choice from Dendeng House (Tel: 67478945 | Opening hours: Daily 11am-7pm), just probably not made for Chinese New Year.
SO OBVIOUS IT’S BEEF JERKY | The dark, rendang colour should give this away, and if it doesn’t, the strong smell mixed in with belachan notes should: it’s barbecued beef ($46 per kg) from Lim Chee Guan (Tel: 62278302 | Opening hours: Daily 9am-10pm). We know what it’s not – traditional bak kwa. For beef jerky though, it’s got good texture.
Vegetarian "bak kwa"
BEST EFFORT | VEGETARIAN “BAK KWA” | “’Bak kwa’ is not meant to be vegetarian,” mocked a taster, and we would not have agreed if Friendly Vegetarian’s (Address: Block 421, Ang Mo Kio Avenue 10, #01-1165 | Tel: 64566607 | Opening hours: Daily 8am-8pm) overly-chewy danger-red mock-up ($6.50 for a box of 250g) didn’t taste like lup cheong (Cantonese dried sausage), rubber, cotton candy and bad oil rolled into sheets. But you won’t know what you’re missing until you taste it. And if you’ve never had bak kwa, this would be a worthy try, before moving on.