First things first, it is NOT a spice.
Wonder why some of your favourite food from Singapore and Asia tastes so good? The secret probably lies in an ingredient that is special to the region — the humble belacan.
What is belacan?
It is a shrimp paste condiment made from ground shrimp or krill that has been salted, dried and fermented.
How did belacan come about?
Some sources say that belacan was first manufactured about 200 years ago in Malacca, and was sometimes referred to as “Malacca cheese” back then. Another account suggests belacan was originally made in a fishing settlement in Penang.
And even today, many believe the best belacan comes from these two Malaysian states.
Why is it such a big deal in the kitchen?
It is an important ingredient in Malay and Peranakan cuisine as it is used to enhance the dishes, even though you can’t usually taste it outright because only a small amount (a teaspoonful or two) is used in the cooking.
What does it taste like?
Belacan is never eaten uncooked. It has a strong fishy taste on its own, but when it is mixed with other ingredients, belacan brings a unique flavour to the dish as a whole.
How do I know if belacan is included in my dishes?
You can probably smell it when your food is being prepared. When the fermented paste is heated, it gives off a strong smell (which may be pungent and unpleasant to some). A blob of belacan is usually toasted or sautéed before it is used. And yes, sometimes the smell sticks to your clothes.
What is belacan used in?
Belacan is essential in making sambal belacan — a spicy chili condiment (pictured) that goes with Peranakan, Malay and Eurasian dishes — by mixing toasted belacan with chili, minced garlic, lime, shallot paste, salt and sugar.
It also enhances the taste of curries, sauces and pastes.
Is belacan good for you?
It is said that belacan contains high levels of protein and calcium as whole shrimps are used in creating this condiment.
Where can I buy belacan?
You can easily find them in supermarkets and grocery stores. They are sold in jars or as a rectangular slab. You can also find it in the form of power in selected places like Geylang Serai.
What type of belacan should I get?
It’s all a matter of preference, really. Some people prefer Penang-made belacan while others swear by Malacca-made belacan, and some are happy with the ready-to-use belacan. Read more here.
How long can I hold on to the belacan I bought?
Belacan can last up to six months if it is kept refrigerated. (The slabs should be wrapped in plastic after each use.) It has a pretty long shelf life due to its salting, fermentation and long drying process.
By Muneerah Bee, September 2016