"Do you have a bird in your bag?", asked the US Customs officer at Newark Airport. Was he kidding me? Apparently not as this was at the height of the bird flu in early 2006 and indeed, the officers were concerned about the smuggling in of live contraband. What they did catch in my suitcase was a whole stash of lap cheong (Chinese sausages), freshly grated coconut, pandan leaves, daun limau purut (kaffir lime leaves), buah keluak and of course, bak kwa (Chinese barbecued pork). The officers inspected and confiscated everything, I was admonished and in the midst of the whole public spectacle, my brand new suitcase was stolen.
I had got away unscathed for years, blatantly bringing in my fresh goods and my favorite snacks with much aplomb. I became bolder and bolder until the bomb dropped on me that moment in 2006. Since then, I have been more careful, meekly packing Maggie noodles or shelf-stable chili sauces and air mailing buah keluak to circumvent the imposing Food X Ray machine.
On my recent return from Singapore this past weekend, I was inundated with requests to bring something back to NY for friends and family. You would think that I would be wiser than to say yes in this age of terrorism. But I obliged my sisters on behalf of my nieces, and agreed to a tit-for-tat for a friend who had previously carried back a cookbook for me. And of course, they had all requested that I carry in bak kwa as well as packs of pork floss. For a moment, I forgot that bak kwa fell into the category of forbidden foods. The US Customs is infamous throughout the world for its strict agriculture policies. The beagles rush to the carousel to greet the suitcases coming in from Italy, filled with sausages and truffles. A family friend always talks about the home-made kueh chang she gorged on the spot because the officers intended to toss them out. Or for that matter, the friends who wanted to die when their expensive vintage wines were taken away (but for a different reason, more to do with the liquid limitations).
So this time, I got away with bak kwa, and lots of it. I bought some........how could I not treat myself when I was carrying all this special delicacy for others? One bite and it made all the justification. Bak kwa happens to be one of the most missed food items for overseas Singaporeans. Sweet, sticky, greasy, succulent, meaty, just plain delicious, Yes, we may argue about its provenance - Lim Joo Guan, Bee Cheng Hiang, Kim Joo Guan, Bee Chun Heng - but a good chew is worth all that danger of getting caught by US Customs. It's a good fix associated with Chinese New Year, shopping malls, Chinatown, family and home.