Malaysians know very well that the smell of the Durian fruit might not be for everyone, but the taste is enormously loved by a large portion of the nation’s population. Similarly, the legendary ingredient we’ve come to know as belacan holds a similar attribute – the smell’s not for everyone, but the taste is definitely a welcome staple to many culinary dishes. Let’s delve into some of the different versions of this prolific ingredient and learn more about its rich history throughout the region.
Belacan, the traditional shrimp paste, holds great significance in Malaysia and beyond. Known as “belacan” in Bahasa Malaysia, this popular food ingredient is made from fresh tiny shrimps called “geragau.” It plays a vital role as a food enhancer in countless Malaysian dishes and is often mixed with chilies, lime, and other ingredients to create the beloved dipping condiment known as “sambal belacan.”
Typically sold in dried blocks ranging in colour from pink to dark brown, belacan is commonly roasted before usage. This can be done by wrapping it in foil and dry-roasting it in a wok, toasting it over a gas flame on the back of a spoon, or using a fork. Roasting not only enhances the flavour but also helps eliminate bacteria.
Belacan’s unique characteristics and significance in Malaysian cuisine have made it an indispensable ingredient in countless dishes. Its umami flavour, derived from its richness in glutamates and nucleotides, adds depth and savoriness to various culinary creations. Other foods rich in umami, such as fish sauce, soy sauce, kimchi, mushrooms, ripe tomatoes, anchovies, and cheese, share a similar ability to enhance the taste of dishes.
The cuisine of a country often reflects its culture and diversity, and Malaysian cuisine is no exception. Malaysians have diverse food preferences, making it challenging to make generalisations. However, there are common ingredients used across cultures, and belacan is one of them. Belacan is shared among different races in the culinary culture of Malaysia, finding its way into a variety of local dishes such as sambal belacan, laksa, nasi goreng belacan, sambal tumis, asam pedas, kangkung goreng belacan, and Indian fried noodles, among others.
Several states in Malaysia, including Melaka, Penang, Sarawak, and Perlis, are renowned for their belacan, with each state’s belacan varying in appearance, colour, texture, taste, and aroma. In local markets, belacan can be found in the cube block, round cake, or powder form.
Belacan has even become a basis for friendly ties and rivalries in the region. While there is a friendly culinary rivalry between Singapore and Malaysia, one notable family in Singapore has apparently grown fond of sambal belacan from Malaysia. In 2019, the Malaysian queen sent her special sambal belacan to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s family, who expressed gratitude for the delicious condiment. This exemplifies the lasting legacy and appreciation for belacan in the region.
The history of belacan dates back centuries, for instance, with a 17th-century account providing a detailed description of its production. English privateer William Dampier encountered people making a paste of small fish and shrimps called balachaun during his visit to Tonkin. While the economic significance of the belacan industry in Singapore and Malaya may not have been as pronounced as that of rubber, tin, or dried and salted fish trades, it still held its own importance. Particularly, belacan served as an affordable staple for tin miners residing in key tin-mining regions like Perak, Selangor, and Sungei Ujong (present-day Seremban). By consuming belacan with rice, they were able to enhance the flavour of their meals and make them more enjoyable.
Belacan’s legacy extends beyond Malaysia. The term belacan is commonly used in Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, and parts of Indonesia to refer to shrimp paste. In Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia, it is known as kapi, borrowed from the term ngapi used in Myanmar. In Vietnam, it is referred to as mắm tôm or mắm ruốc.
Belacan Bintulu possesses a powerful smell and taste. Unlike other belacan varieties, it is red in colour, chalky rather than salty, and slightly moist. The production process begins with the harvesting of fresh acetates from Bintulu waters. These prawns, slightly pink in colour, are only harvested during the dry season from March until May. They are mixed with salt and dried under the sun for several days. The dried acetates are then pounded using a mortar, repeating the process until the paste reaches its full maturity and is ready to be moulded into shrimp paste.
To preserve the high quality and taste of Belacan Bintulu, it is wrapped in a type of leaf known as “daun apun.” This method allows the shrimp paste to be stored for several years while maintaining its exceptional quality.