I had an wonderful opportunity to sit down with Ching, CO-founder of Little Red Dot Kitchen; you might recall my post about their bak gwa. This is part of a new series where I will be asking co-founders a few questions to dig deep into their passion/love for their product beyond what the about section states on their website.
1. You mention that your bak gwa does not use high fructose syrup. Does bak gwa in the states and in Singapore use high fructose syrup? “It’s very possible because when you do that, you don’t have to use as much sugar, it sweetens more, and it’s cheaper. Not all sugars are created equally; you have glucose, sucrose, and fructose. The way sugar is introduced to your bloodstream is different. Some are easier to break down than the other. Fructose is the hardest to break down. Sucrose has a little bit of glucose and fructose so it’s an in-between. Granulated sugar, at times is not as easy to melt. High fructose syrup is used to increase profit margin. Fructose is especially bad. If you have equal consumption of both you’ll see more weight gain from consuming fructose than from consuming granulated sugar. We actually use organic sugar. Every bit makes a difference, it tastes great. You just don’t feel good after eating certain things. We don’t want to leave that type of after taste. We don’t use canned fruits or pineapples; we use fresh fruit.
Would the everyday person be able to taste the difference between bak gwa with fructose syrup and bak gwa using real granulated sugar? “I believe so. Especially for foodies, palettes are definitely more discerning. Let’s say you’ve been eating bak gwa with fructose syrup all your life. Then you try the bak gwa with real sugar; at first you might not be able to tell. However, after tasting the bakgwa with real sugar, if you go back to eating bak gwa with fructose syrup, you will be able to discern it. It’s like my experience of gelato in Italy. I didn’t know gelato here sucks. It trained my pallet so that when I returned back to the states, I was able to feel the graininess in the gelato here.” What about people that have never had bak gwa? “20% of customers have had bak gwa, which is not a lot. People who have not had bak gwa compare their benchmark, which is regular jerky. So, they think it is really good.”
2. We know that bak gwa dates back to the 16th century; how did it start (aka by accident) and was it a luxury food back then? “It has to do with preserving. The French have pates, taking livers and making it into gourmet. You have the Koreans who take bim bim bop, which is beggar’s food/leftovers, and make it into a dish. Same thing with jerky, cowboys they go on long trips, and they need to have their meat with them, so they have to preserve it and they dry it as much as they can. Then they found out that salt helps. It’s the same idea with bak gwa. Even in China, there are different ways of making it; they use hydration and sometimes fry them to make it more fragrant. This is uniquely Singaporean and Malaysian because of how it’s made. Uniquely Singaporean is that it’s grilled. The Taiwanese also grill their bak gwa. Back then, in meat markets, there would always be left over meats. Refrigeration was not that great so Singaporeans would marinate all these meats, mincing it once; or they would mince it and make the meat into something they can snack on. Slowly, this process evolved into bak gwa. Back then, two generations before us, I don’t think a lot of our fore fathers had the luxury of what we have right now. So a lot of it is driven from necessity.”
3. Bak Gwa in Singapore is a top 10 food. How often is it eaten over there; is it frequented as a snack or saved for more special celebratory occasions? “It’s both. For celebratory occasions, the peak seasons are during the mid-autumn festival and Chinese New Year’s. As for snacking, bak gwa is definitely a comfort food that you love and enjoy on a daily basis because street food is the way of life for Singaporeans. You’d walk on the streets and see a drain on the ground and have an old man selling bak gwa. It’s a part of life; especially for ones that have left home for school, career, etc. After my brother left for Switzerland, my mom shipped bak gwa to him, and the postage would cost more than the meat. We even have inquiries from Australia and Canada.”
4. Who is the brains behind the recipe? “We are a group of five and we made the recipe by researching online for a baseline and adding other ingredients. We went from 50lbs, to 100lbs, to 500lbs. We also used forms for market research, taking in consideration feedbacks. We also have a chef, who was the executive chef at Trader Vic’s for 11 years. He has helped us with recipe development and most importantly scalability of production. Is your recipe typical of Singapore bak gwa or have you added your own spin? In Singapore, no recipe is the same between any two shops. There might be personal preferences from one to the other, but both can still be deemed authentic. As for ours, we’ve added our own spin and it is authentic, like the bak gwa from home; maybe even better.”
5. How long did it take to perfect the recipe, how many batches, how many days? “Were you guys individually making bak gwa prior, or did you guys just start making it after getting together (in Jan 2011)? It took a year to finalize, and six months to come to the 80-90% point. We made lots and lots of batches. We started talking about it in October of 2010 and the company was registered in January 2011. From that point on it took a full year. The process consisted of talking, trying, and having fun. Individually making bak gwa is very meticulous. Typically, the yield of what you make is only 50% because you lose half the size of the meat from the shrinkage. As for jerky, the ratio is 3:1 meaning 3 pounds of meat only gets you 1 pound of jerky. Little Red Dot is yielding ½ to 1/3 shrinkage. This process of shrinking after grilling really discourages people because they work so hard and the return on meat is so little. Most prefer to not deal with this and would rather buy it.”
6. You mentioned that LRDK’s bak gwa is made in small batches because this farm to grill model ensures that each piece tastes the way it should be. Is this usually how it’s done? “Commercially, you have big machines that go through conveyers. There’s very minimal human interaction. When you do small batch mixing there’s a huge difference between that and the commercial process for large batch. The mixing quality is better and you control the quality more when you have human interaction. For example when we grill the jerky, not all of them cook at the same rates, even though we form the meat into square shapes. Some burn faster than others and that’s when having a small batch comes in handy. If you pour the marinade into a thousand pound mixture, you’ll get spots of unevenness whether it be too much chili or sugar. That’s why we opt for small batches.”
7. On your site, there are numerous ideas for bak gwa pairing; did you come up with these? “Yes we came up with all of these; the pizza was my idea. Fried rice is definitely more popular and comes from Singapore, How do you eat it? What are some popular pairings and what is your favorite? The most popular way of eating it is a snack by itself. Some people use it with white fluffy bread. Fried rice is also a popular one. It’s actually better than Lap Cheong (臘腸) because Lap Cheong is dryer than bak gwa. Anything with a little bit of grain, carbs, goes really well with bak gwa because it complements the milder taste from the grain. I love eating it with figs. People love it (figs) with goat cheese, but I personally think you need 3 elements. You have the sweet element (figs), the dairy (cheese), but you also want some protein (bak gwa) in this case.”
8. What is your favorite memory of bak gwa? “In Malaysia there is a huge Muslim population and they cannot eat pork. My grandpa had a welding factory and one time, he had his workers come over for a visit. He would usually serve snacks and this time he unexpectedly had bak gwa out. All of the workers were Muslim. It didn’t cross our minds that they couldn’t eat pork and before we could stop them, they were already munching on the bak gwa. They kept eating the bak gwa and we’ve never told them. This says a lot about the snack because of all the delicacies on the table, all the workers went back for the bak gwa.”
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Photos and photo editing courtesy of QooMui