Chinese New Year is an overwhelming experience in Penang, Malaysia. At night, fireworks shoot up from busy roads and explode over shophouses. Hundreds of thousands of colorful lights brighten Kek Lok Si Temple on the hillside. Lions & Dragons dance in the street, moving with the rumbling of drums and the deafening of firecrackers.
During the day, the roads are clogged with cars and motor bikes. Families moving from one house to another, visiting with loved ones while munching down pineapple tarts, love letters, almond cookies, peanuts, melon seeds, and endless other homemade and store-bought snacks. Then washing it down with cans of shandy and Tiger beer.
In the commotion of my first visit to Reese’s extended family during Chinese New Year, I was quickly introduced to everyone, and handed a fistful of cash-filled red packets called ang pao. Before I could start on the snacks and celebrate my new found fortune, I was hurriedly escorted to the poker table where the aunties and cousins taught me a lesson of what goes up, must come down. My fortune was extinguished in less than an hour.
With an empty stomach and a pocket full of empty ang pao, one uncle came over, rested his hand on my sunken shoulder, and gave me a red box that was already opened. He asked me try it. I could smell the strong aroma of charcoal grilled meat. I took out one of the squares, and took a bite. It was sweet, smoky, savory, chewy, and insanely delicious. It was my first taste of Bak Kwa 肉干, but with that piece, I became an instant convert, joining the millions of Chinese in Malaysia & Singapore willing to wait in long queues under the hot sun, just to have an excuse to gorge on the gourmet barbecued pork jerky at the start of Chinese New Year.
Now that we’re back in Minnesota, we’ve been creating our own homemade version of Bak Kwa to ring in the New Year. It’s actually easy to make, with just some ground pork (or ground turkey, if you prefer), a few Asian sauces and ingredients, and a high quality five spice powder like our Penang-style Chinese Five Spice.
With the sweet and citrusy elements in our Penang Chinese Five Spice blend, it will give homemade Bak Kwa an absolutely enticing aroma and flavor that will remind many of you of your favorite Bak Kwa back in Penang, and hook the rest of you who have yet to try Bak Kwa, to join in this annual tradition.
Once the Bak Kwa is roasted, then glazed and grilled, enjoy a square or two while it’s still hot. Keep the rest for snacking on over the next few days. They’re great for breakfast too with a side of eggs, or in a simple sandwich for lunch. To balance out your Bak Kwa binges, always follow them up with a cup of green tea, and another Chinese New Year essential – Mandarin oranges.
Gong Xi Fa Cai! Bak Kwa Na Lai!