Lincoln Tan discovers Auckland’s hidden restaurant dishes – bakkwa at Malaysia Singapore Cuisine

Herald ethnic affairs reporter and dedicated foodie Lincoln Tan introduces you to a world of hidden restaurant delights around Auckland.

When he was 18, Michael Ong left his Malaysian hometown of Kuala Lumpur in search of better opportunities in Singapore – where he learned the art of making bakkwa.

Bakkwa, which simply means “dried meat” in the Hokkien dialect, is an extremely popular meat jerky snack among Singaporeans, Malaysians and Chinese during the lunar period, when people are prepared to pay high prices and queue for hours to get it.

Over the years, the bakkwa-making skills which Ong learned from his Singapore masters at Bee Cheng Hiang in the early 1970s have been his ticket to successful businesses in Malaysia, England and Auckland.

But now, aged 65, Ong plans to retire and is scaling back on work.

When he moved here in 1989, Ong started his first stall selling Malaysian food in Otahuhu. Within a decade he had opened seven restaurants and food court stalls.

All but the Malaysia Singapore Cuisine stall at Meadowlands Shopping Plaza food court have been sold or closed.

Ong was a pioneer of Malaysian cuisine in Auckland, but even as it became more popular, his bakkwa distinguished his eateries from the rest.

Bakkwa’s origins can be traced to China’s Fujian province when poverty was widespread and pork was considered a luxury meat.

The delicacy was brought to Malaya by Hokkien immigrants from Fujian, and the dish – known as rou gan to the Chinese – was tweaked to suit local taste.

For Ong’s Singapore-style bakkwa, the barbecued meat is minced, shaped into slices and dipped in a sweet marinade before being air-dried and finally grilled over charcoal.

At Ong’s stalls, bakkwa goes beyond pork. He offers beef and chicken varieties, plus a spicy pork option.

“I have 48 years in making bakkwa, I learned to make it from the best and I am not afraid to say that my bakkwa is the best you can find in New Zealand,” Ong said.

“My bakkwa I believe is also healthier because we use less fatty pork and no preservatives, artificial food colouring or monosodium glutamate.”

On hitting 60, Ong decided to cut back on his businesses and spend more time with his family.

His children, most of whom are successful professionals, have less passion for the business than him.

Although the Meadowlands stall has been transferred to his eldest son, Ong still helps out, especially at weekends, so his son can have a life.

“They are not interested in spending long hours running restaurants or preparing food, very different from me because I didn’t have a high education,” Ong said.

“I am passionate about my bakkwa, and of course sharing Malaysian and Singaporean food dishes with Kiwis. You can last this long in this industry only when you have the love and passion for it.”

Although there are now several home-based operators making and selling bakkwa, Ong’s stall is perhaps the only commercial eatery selling it on a daily basis.

Other popular dishes at Ong’s stall are the Singapore-fried “hsinchu” bee hoon, seafood laksa and Hokkien noodles.

“Doing business these days is not as easy or profitable as it was 20 years ago, but it would be a pity to let this stall go and that’s why I want my son to take over,” he said.

• Malaysia Singapore Cuisine, Meadowlands Plaza, 112 Whitford Rd, Somerville, https://www.malaysiasingaporecuisine.co.nz/menu

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