Five techie friends from Singapore met in college and grad school in the United States and then landed engineering jobs in Silicon Valley. They all missed a barbecued meat snack common in Singapore and Malaysia called Bak Kwa.
Ching Lee, who’s heading up the group’s specialty food business, describes it, “Bak Kwa is grilled over charcoal at small street stands, and the aroma of the caramelized, roasting meat is wonderful. It’s the taste and smell of home.”
Though she and her friends still have very strong ties to Singapore and Malaysia, the group is Californians now. They wanted to integrate the two. “We all have similar roots, and we would talk for hours about what we missed. The thing we all missed the most was the food.”
One of them had a small pouch of Bak Kwa from Singapore, somebody else said, ”Why don’t we make this?” and it became a collective effort. “Getting started was a huge learning curve,” Ching remembers. “It has taken a lot of guts to overcome the operational hurdles. Probably the hardest part was converting the recipe, because what we made in the kitchen had to be customized to a scalable version.”
But in 2011, the group was ready. They founded Little Red Dot Kitchen, which their website explains was named for the country of Singapore, which is so small that it’s usually denoted on a map as a “little red dot.”
Originally, a co-packer made the Bak Kwa for them, but the company is now in its own San Jose production facility, and Ching Lee is full time, along with additional staff who have been hired to help the company grow. “We’re very happy to be in our own facility with our own staff, so that we can control quality and production capacity, and we can be completely confident in responding to buyers.”
“I enjoyed my engineering career, but this is an exciting opportunity, and it is a passion. It’s a bonus to have my original group of friends still involved. With 5 Singaporeans keeping an eye on the product, Little Red Dot Kitchen will stay close to its roots.”
When asked the difference between Bak Kwa and what Americans know as jerky, Ching explains that Bak Kwa is not dehydrated. Bak Kwa is thinly sliced and marinated and then roasted quickly over charcoal, so it becomes caramelized and the texture is moist and soft.
In fact, the product was a challenge for the USDA. “No one had done this with USDA approval, so they didn’t know how to handle our product. We spent a lot of time with in the lab, testing, developing protocols, doing moisture analyses. Now our facility and our products are USDA approved.”
At a Southeast Asian meat truck, Bak Kwa would be wrapped in butcher paper and tied with twine. Here in the US, it’s an on-the-go product in resealable pouches.” It’s all part of modernized tradition.”
“Bak Kwa is part of our heritage, and I enjoy the challenge of introducing it to Americans. It’s particularly gratifying that when people try it, they love it.”