Aunt Shoba’s Secret Meat

My kid’s call her “Aunt Shoba.” And she’s got a secret.

Our dear friend Shoba, you see, comes from Singapore, where she was recently visiting her parents. We fed her family while she was gone — including a birthday dinner for husband Bob. As a gesture of love and thanks, she brought me something back, a regal red bag with gold Chinese characters embossed on the front, a package weighing around a pound inside, that she slipped to me stealthily with a suggestion: “Hide that.”

Shoba's back

Shoba’s back

“What is it?” I whispered back.

“Meat,” she said.

It was called “bak kwa,” from the Lim Chee Guan company. She then sent me a link explaining.

From the Singapore Daily: “Singaporeans are even queuing up through the night to get their bak kwa this time around. Well-known bak kwa store Lim Chee Guan saw its stock sold out within 75 minutes of its opening at 9am this morning. Many in the queue also appeared prepared for the long wait as some came with portable chairs while others were seen leisurely reading the papers. Reporters spoke to some folks in the queue, asking why they would spend so much time queuing for bak kwa. They explained that this is because the bak kwa here is delicious, and they get to feel the festive vibe by joining the queue.”

The ??? ??? store in Singapore

The Lim Chee Guan store in Singapore

Bak kwa, in turns out, is a kind of flattened pork product, appearing about the way you might imagine laboratory-grown beef to look once you’d cooked it up. Around the Chinese New Year, prices for bak kwa skyrocket and people queue. Again, the Singapore Daily: “There’s even a Bak Kwa Index to monitor ‘sizzling’ prices over the days leading up to CNY.” Fortunately, for Shoba, it’s readily available and less bankruptcy-inducing the rest of the year.

A few nights later, Bob and Shoba were coming for dinner.

“Let’s try this!” I said when they arrived. Shoba’s eyes flared. “Yes.”

I opened the package. Inside was thin sheets of charred meat, looking fairly unappealing. I broke off a corner and tried it. Instantly something came over me, as if — like Snow White and the apple — an evil spell had been cast over me. I did not want to share. The flavor fell somewhere in the Golden Zone between Korean short ribs and bacon, the texture toothsome yet melt-in-your-mouth —a pork gummy.


I doled out miserly slivers to my wife and guests. The children didn’t want to try it, bless their little hearts.

And then Shoba slipped, and the secret was out. In the process of further mystifying bak kwa for us, she happened to mention having eaten some recently — as in more recently than Singapore.

“We have some?!” Bob asked, surprised.

I have some,” Shoba clarified. “It’s hidden.”

Confronted, she was mercilessly honest and utterly unrepentant about her stash. I was impressed.

Shoba is one of the world’s most beautiful women. But she does not let you take a photo of her. As I tried in vain to snap a shot for my blog post, eventually settling for an image of her back, an unsettling thought occurred to me: Maybe Shoba really was some kind of malevolent meat sorceress (there was a reason she didn’t let you take her picture!), the bak kwa enchanted, and I was now under its spell.

“You must set up a daily ration scheme,” Shoba later counseled me when I confessed in a text to suffering from bak kwa cravings. Yes, I assured her, the main component of my ration strategy was to not share.

I had learned well from my bak kwa sorceress.

Now the bak kwa resides at the back of the fridge, tucked behind the half-eaten Iberico bellota ham leg — two pork miracles from opposite sides of the globe. By the time anyone reads this, it will be gone.

23 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Kathy Rautureau
    May 08, 2015 @ 01:10:48

    Great piece, as usual! Had me laughing and wanting to try this magical mystery meat. Just wanted to let you know how much I enjoy your writing and your stories, thanks!


  2. Cheryl "Cheffie Cooks" Wiser
    May 08, 2015 @ 01:33:51

    Sean, I enjoyed this post! Nice job…


  3. Beth
    May 08, 2015 @ 01:42:54

    Singaporeans are wonderful people. Met several over the winter on planes and in Thailand. Great post


  4. Mom
    May 08, 2015 @ 03:16:11

    WHY do you tell us if you’re not going to share?


  5. shobapfaff
    May 08, 2015 @ 14:46:56

    Wait till the Bak Kwa Sorceress introduces you to Laksa, Crispy Baby Squid and Pepper Crab…


  6. Michelle
    May 09, 2015 @ 03:40:29

    Mmmm, Asian jerky. And I’m with Shoba on the photos. Why do people think I always have a camera in my very own hands?


  7. thejameskitchen
    May 09, 2015 @ 06:35:30

    Now, this is a tad unfair, hardly can wait until someone will invent the tasternet (I am trademarking and get my tech husband on it) but until then: are you sure, it’s all gone cause I’ll swap some for more Iberico? Loved the story, what a really charming woman. 😉 Nicole


  8. Jessamine in PDX
    May 10, 2015 @ 04:18:50

    I’m totally with you on meat hoarding — I seriously hide all the good stuff from my husband. If I’m feeling generous, I’ll share, but most of the time I just nibble away in secret. I’ve learned to hide most things in the veggie drawer – safest spot! 😉 I’ve never heard of bak kwa, but your description of how it tastes has me very intrigued. I’m headed to google for more research…


  9. scolgin
    May 10, 2015 @ 04:22:46

    We’ve gotta do what we’ve gotta do. I’m not above (below) stashing meat in the veggie drawer, the butter nook, even the medicine cabinet if need be.


  10. timoirish34
    May 11, 2015 @ 16:09:09

    One small step for man–one giant leap for pork-kind!


  11. timoirish34
    May 12, 2015 @ 00:52:00

    The story of pork is the story of the US. This land sustained itself on pork-back when beef was too exotic and expensive for the average household.

    BTW–Happy Birthday to your dear father in what I am sure must be the happiest of afterlives!


  12. Asian Foodie
    May 27, 2015 @ 01:55:27

    Really enjoyed your post!


  13. Trackback: Singapore Swing | skinny girls & mayonnaise
  14. Sharkbait Gal
    Jan 04, 2016 @ 16:44:45

    Just stumbled upon your website when searching for Lardo, then found this Bak Kwa page. Next time Shoba buys you more Bak Kwa, keep a few slices in the fridge and stash the rest in the freezer (each piece wrapped in its own foil package). When you can no longer bear waiting any longer, take a couple of slices out, warm them within their foil packets in the oven, then finally remove from foil and grill till the fat bubbles and sizzles. The perfume wafts out of the kitchen (secret’s out!) and I swear it’s really the best way to eat the warm, slightly crisp/burnt edged Bak Kwa.


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