Growing up, a favorite treat for me was the beef jerky my parents made. I loved that delicious, salty snack, but after I moved away I questioned my memory of those meaty treats. My subsequent encounters, left me cold, they were not so much dried as desiccated, tough as nails, so stringy that I required an immediate session with the dental floss upon choking down the last bit. In a word, blegh! I’d given up on jerky, believing I could not find anything that replicated the chewy goodness that my parents made – theirs was but a yummy memory; that is until recently. A few years ago, while in Singapore, my friend who lived there was showing us their Chinatown. She wanted to share a favorite snack of her daughter, and took us into a store that sold only one thing – jerky, or more specifically bakkwa. It was delicious in its uniform square shape, and sweet-savory taste. While the spices differed, it brought back memories of those tasty nibbles my parents had made; maybe it wasn’t an illusion after all.
Since then, I’ve noticed that jerky appears to be making a stealthy comeback, no grand marketing campaign, but showing up in high end food emporiums and farmers market. Its not just about the beef any more – pork, buffalo, deer, turkey, duck, salmon and probably more than a few other protein options need to be considered. Like the meat options, the seasoning options are equally plentiful, consider pepper jerky, teriyaki, barbecue, hickory smoked and maple spice. The combinations seem limitless.
But jerky in Singapore? I thought jerky was the stuff of the American West; cowboys chomped on it, while herding cattle on the plains. How the heck did it end up in Singapore, or did I really have my jerky lessons down wrong? This of course led me to think, hmm – America, Singapore, what other countries have their version of jerky? Then a worrisome thought entered my head, “what else was out there that I was missing out on”?
American Style Jerky
The American Indians are credited with inventing the original beef jerky, as a way to preserve meat for times when food was scarce. Jerky is any type of meat, which has been cured with a salt solution and has had the moisture reduced to less than 50% of the total.
I’ve found two different accounts of who to credit for the original jerky, and both seem plausible:
- The American Indians are credited with inventing the original beef jerky, as a way to preserve meat for times when food was scarce.
- Beef jerky is thought to have originated in South America during the 1800s. The Quechua tribe, decedents of the mighty Inca empire, produced a meat similar to beef jerky called ch’arki which was made by salting strips meat from game animals such as deer, buffalo, and elk, and drying them in the sun or over fires. This preparation allowed preservation of meat when it was plentiful for eating when food was scarce. When the Spanish encountered this method of meat preservation, they adopted it and through their travels spread it to the rest of the world.
The meat and a curing solution are all that is needed for making meat jerky. The curing solution improves the taste, increases the life of the jerky, and adds to the final color. The cure solution also has an antimicrobial effect, preventing the growth of harmful bacteria.
Bakkwa is a Chinese salty-sweet dried meat similar to jerky, formed in flat thin sheets. It is normally made from pork. Bakkwa probably originated from a meat preservation technique first used in ancient China, making it older than jerky.
In Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines bakkwa or ba gua is the most common name. Cantonese speakers use the term yuhk gōn’, while in Taiwan the meat is referred to as rougan. Commercially available versions are may be labeled as “barbecued pork,” “dried pork,” or “pork jerky.” Bakkwa is particularly popular in Macau, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan and the Philippines.
In Malaysia and Singapore, bakkwa is a popular gift offered to visitors and acquaintances. In Muslim-majority countries like Malaysia, a halal chicken version is often substituted. It may also be served in functions such as Chinese wedding banquets and religious ceremony dinners. While demand is particularly high during the festive seasons, it can be found year round in various outlets as takeaway snacks or to be served together with main courses at home. The meat is commonly sold in red-colored bags, an auspicious colour in Chinese culture.
Traditionally, bakkwa was made using leftover meats from festivals and banquets. They were preserved with sugar and salt for later consumption. The meat from these celebrations is trimmed of the fat, sliced, marinated and then smoked. After smoking, the meat is cut into small pieces and stored. It is believed that the distinguishing feature behind the preparation was in the marination, and the recipe is often closely guarded. Today, there’s no waiting for leftovers, the meat is often prepared using fresh produce. Today, two variations are common, with more traditional ones involving minced meat shaped into slices, and the newer versions involving slicing off solid blocks of meat. The latter is gaining in popularity due to its tougher texture and lower fat content. The meat is mostly served plain and in square-shaped slices.
Rousong, also called meat floss, pork floss, pork sung, fuzzy pork is a dried Chinese meat item that has a texture similar to coarse cotton. Fish can also be used, and the Malaysian Muslims make a meat floss from chicken or beef called serunding, which is a popular during Ramadan. Rousong is a topping for many foods from congee, tofu, to savory soy milk. It is also used as filling for various buns and pastries, and as a snack food on its own.
Rousong is made by stewing cuts of pork in a sweetened soy sauce mixture until individual muscle fibers are easily teased apart with a fork. The meat is then strained and dried in the oven. After a light drying, the meat is mashed and beaten while dry cooked in a large wok until it is completely dry. Additional flavourings are often added at this point.
Biltong is a cured meat from South Africa, than may include any number of different meat in its production, ranging from beef to game, and even ostrich or shark. It is typically made from raw meat cut into strips, similar to beef jerky, that are spiced and dried. they differ in their ingredients, taste and production process. The word biltong is from the Dutch bil (“rump”) + tong (“strip” or “tongue”).
Dutch settlers arriving in South Africa in the 17th century brought recipes for dried meat from Europe. Preparation involved applying vinegar, then rubbing the meat with herbs, salts and spices. The need for preservation in the new colony was pressing. Building up herds of livestock took a long time. There was native game about but it could take hunters days to track and kill a large animal, and they were then challenged with preserving a large mass of meat in a short time in a hot climate during a period of history before iceboxes had been invented. Biltong evolved from the dried meat carried by the wagon-travelling Voortrekkers, who needed durable food as they migrated from the Cape Colony (Cape Town) into the interior of Southern Africa. The raw meat was quickly preserved, and within a few weeks, would be black and rock-hard after it had fully cured.
The most common ingredients of biltong are:
- cider vinegar
- rock salt
- black pepper
- brown sugar
Other ingredients might include: balsamic vinegar or malt vinegar, dry chili peppers, garlic, baking soda, Worcestershire sauce, onion powder, and saltpetre. Prior to the introduction of refrigeration, this process was used to preserve all kinds of meat in South Africa, but today beef is the most popular protein source.
The meat is typically marinated for a few hours in a vinegar solution, which is drained off before the meat is flavored. The spice mix traditionally consists equal amounts of those common ingredients, that are roughly ground together and liberally rubbed into the meat. Saltpetre is optional and was added as an extra preservative. The meat should set for a further few hours (or refrigerated overnight) and any excess liquid poured off before it is hung in the dryer.
Biltong differs from jerky in two ways:
- The meat used in biltong can be much thicker; typically biltong meat is cut in strips approx 1″ wide – but can be thicker. Jerky is normally very thin meat.
- The vinegar and salt in biltong, together with the drying process, cures the meat and add texture and flavor. Jerky recipes typically do not involve vinegar.
Pastirma or Bastirma
Pastırma or bastırma is a highly seasoned, air-dried cured beef of the former Ottoman countries. The name pastırma is derived from the verb pastırmak (bastırmak in modern Turkish), which means “to press”. Pastırma is usually considered Turkish, though it is produced and consumed throughout Eastern Europe and the Middle East. One legend recounts that Turkic horsemen of Central Asia preserved meat by placing slabs of it in the pockets of their saddles, where it was pressed by their legs as they rode. Though beef is the most common meat, other proteins include camel, pork, lamb, goat, and water buffalo.
Pastırma is prepared by salting the meat, then washing it with water and letting it dry for 10-15 days. The blood and salt are then squeezed out of the meat which is then covered with a cumin paste called çemen prepared with crushed cumin, fenugreek, garlic, and hot paprika, followed more air-drying. In Egypt, pastirma is served at breakfast with fried eggs. It is also used as a topping for pizza, and a filling for a variety of oven prepared stuff dough dishes, whether they are made from regular bread like dough, or a flaky multilayered puff pastry like dough. Palestinians like their pastirma thinly sliced and fry it in olive oil. The pastirma is served not only in the mezze table but also for breakfast with freshly baked pita bread.
The Lebanese-Armenians introduced pastirma to Lebanese cuisine, and it is usually served as a mezze in thin slices, usually uncooked, but sometimes lightly grilled. It may be added to different dishes, the most famous of which is a bean dish, and various pies.
Pemmican is a concentrated mixture of fat and protein used as a nutritious food. The word comes from the Cree word pimîhkân, which itself is derived from the word pimî, “fat or grease”. It was invented by the native Indians of North America, and widely adopted as a high-energy food by Europeans involved in the fur trade and later by Arctic and Antarctic explorers.
The specific ingredients used were usually whatever was available; the meat was often bison, moose, elk, or deer. Fruits such as cranberries and saskatoon berries were sometimes added. Cherries, currants, chokeberries and blueberries were also used, but almost exclusively in ceremonial and wedding pemmican.
Traditionally pemmican was prepared from the lean meat of large game such as buffalo, elk or deer. The meat was thinly sliced and dried over a slow fire, or in the hot sun until hard and brittle. Then it was pounded into very small pieces, almost powder-like in consistency, using stones. The pounded meat was mixed with melted fat. In some cases, dried fruits such as cranberries, blueberries, or choke cherries were pounded into powder and then added to the meat/fat mixture. The resulting mixture was then packed into rawhide pouches for storage. This sounds like an early version of the energy bar.
Some other examples of dried meat:
carne seca from Latin America. Most recipes seem to require vinegar added to the marinade, and most of the recipes claim a Mexican provenance.
fenalår from Norway is a salted dried, and sometimes smoked, leg of lamb.
Suho meso is a smoked beef food preparation consumed in Bosnia.
Two that are a bit more refined than their basic staple counterparts:
bresaola from Italy is air-dried salted beef, that was given a dry rub of salt and spices such as juniper berries. Thinly sliced and looks nothing like beef jerky. Think proscuitto.
Buendnerfleisch from Switzerland
Which while salted are sometimes flavored with herbs and wine. In fact its hard to consider bresaola and jerky as related but the process is similar.
Maybe not really traditional, but I’ve had making jerky as a snack to watch the Tour de France. Here’s two of my favorites, that I modified from the June 2010 issue of Food & Wine. Both recipes require 2 pounds of trimmed top or bottom round beef, and the final product is ¾ pound of jerky.
For the marinades:
Mexican Lime Jerky
2 large jalapenos, halved, 1 seeded
1 c fresh lime juice
1 quart light Mexican beer (Corona, Pacifico)
½ c soy sauce
coarse salt for sprinking before drying the meat
In a mini food processor, puree the seed jalapeno along with ¼ c of the lime juice. Transfer the puree to a large bowl and stir in the remaining marinade ingredients.
I like this sort of jerky with more of a bit, next time I am not seeding either jerky. I let the meat marinade for a bit over 6 hours, and that was not long enough.
Sweet and Spicy Jerky
1 ½ c strong brewed coffee
1 ½ c Coca Cola
2 whole star anise pods
2 c soy sauce
½ c Asian fish sauce
½c fresh lime juice
¼ c Asian style chili garlic sauce
Pour the ingredients into a large bowl and let return to room temperature. Add the remaining ingredients and stir well.
I found that 6 hours was almost too much time to marinate this batch. It was almost too salty for me probably because of all the soy sauce and fish sauce. I loved the taste but next time, I am reducing the amount of time I let the beef marinate.
For the Beef Jerky (either marinade)
Slice the meat in ¼” thick slices.
Add the beef to the marinate and make sure it is well coated. Cover and refrigerate from 6 to 8 hours.
Preheat the oven to 200°F. Set a large wire rack on a baking sheet (will need more than one). Remove beef from the marinade and arrange on the racks. Bake for about 4 hours until the jerky is firm and almost completely dry, but still chewy. (The aroma will dictate that you have to sneak a few samples to check on its progress).
This jerky can be kept in a refrigerator for up to 6 weeks.