If shrimp paste makes you think about little pots of pink goo, then think again. Belacan is dark, sultry, flavourful, and smelly. If potted shrimp is a domestic cat, then belacan would be a tiger. If you visit South East Asia you are bound to come across belacan in one form or another though it has different names, depending on whether you are in Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia, or Malaysia.
There used to be a village on Penang’s shoreline, not far from the Tropical Spice Garden, which was known locally as Kampong (or village) Belacan. Actually you couldn’t miss it as the pungent smell of rotting shrimp laid out to dry in the sun announced its location miles away. It’s strange to think that this highly unpalatable odour actually heralds one of the tastiest ingredients in South East Asian cuisine. Some people refer to it as belacan butter but this is a bit of a misnomer because there’s no dairy in it at all – it’s shrimp and salt and that’s about it. It’s still made in Malaysia as a cottage industry – though no longer at Kampong Belacan! Small prawns are sun dried with salt (which acts as a preservative) that are then pounded before being formed into blocks and dried in the sun again. The resulting paste is slightly crumbly – a bit like a stock cube in texture – and must be roasted or fried before use. The resulting delicious flavour belies the smelliness of the process and is the backbone flavour for many curries and soups in South-East Asia.
The secret to belachan is that it is a fermented food. Fermentation goes back to the dawn of human cooking – before refrigeration one of the few ways to keep food from spoiling was to ferment it. People quickly discovered that fermenting food also added to its taste and this is probably because the process creates good bacteria, which our digestive systems need in order to maintain good health. So belacan doesn’t only make things taste good, it is also a healthy food.
Use belacan to make a powerfully flavoured sambal that will enhance any curry. Combine chopped chilies (remove the seeds first if you don’t want it super hot) with a dollop of belacan and a slug of calamansi lime juice. Add salt (but remember that belacan itself is salty) and palm sugar to taste. If you can’t find calamansi limes, you could substitute ordinary lime juice but it won’t have the same tang. Almost any spicy sauce or curry gravy will be enhanced by belacan but remember to roast or fry it first. You can find belacan in most Asian food stores but it may come under a different name such as terasi (Indonesia), ngapi (Myanmar), kapi (Thailand), and mamtom (Vietnam).
If you want to know more about cooking with belacan, make sure you visit the Tropical Spice Garden Cooking School when you are next in Penang. You can learn all about making authentic South East Asian dishes from local cooks.