Belacan (Shrimp Paste)

Belacan is a condiment made of udang geragau (krill) that has been salted, dried and fermented.  I prefer the pound of udang geragau that the maker manually pounds.

Belacan is an essential ingredient in Malay cooking. The recipes that had belacan or also known as shrimp paste are sambal tumis, asam pedas, air asam or also known as a dip for grill fish and very much our beloved sambal belacan.

For me, without belacan, dishes like asam pedas and sambal tumis are incomplete. There is a variety of belacan in Malaysia. The most popular belacan is from Malacca and Tanjung Dawai in Kedah. Kedah is in the northern state of  Malaysia

Type of belacan that I used

I am a bit choosy about belacan.

We seldom get the pound belacan however we manage to get our supply from the seller in Pasar Selayang Baru. The seller gets the belacan from Malacca which is homemade rather than large produce. 

I always buy one kilogram of belacan each time the seller gets a new supply. I do not want to take a risk of not having fresh belacan from Malacca.  This will jeopardize my Sambal Nasi Lemak.  

I keep fresh belacan in a hand made traditional vase from Perak called Labu Sayong and put in the refrigerator. It lasts longer. 

The strong smell of belacan is intact in Labu Sayong and does not come out. I’ve been using Labu sayong as a storage container to keep belacan for the past ten years. I appreciate it as it is traditionally made. 

Belacan in Labu Sayong

I bought Labu Sayong at their originated place of making in,  Kuala Kangsar, Perak.

I prefer to keep belacan fresh and only toast a portion of belacan when I want to make sambal belacan or dip for grill fish. 

For sambal tumis, I just use untoasted fresh belacan to be mixed with dried chillies, shallots and garlic in a blender.

How belacan is made

Preparation techniques vary among the countries in South East Asia but the following is common.

After being caught, udang geragau are unloaded, rinsed and drained before being dried. Drying can be done either on plastic mats on the ground in the sun or on metal beds on low stilts. 

After several days, udang geragau with salt mixture will darken and turn into a thick pulp. Since udang geragau is small, it is ready to be served as soon as the shrimp have broken down beyond recognition.

The fermentation or grinding process is usually repeated several times until the paste fully matures. The paste is then dried. Dried shrimp paste does not require refrigeration and wrapped in the thick plastic.

What can belacan offer 

Although belacan is fermented, it still has some health benefits preserved. There are bacteria in shrimp paste that produces MK-7, a type of vitamin K2 that is nutritious According to Wikipedia, MK-7 is found in US dietary supplements for bone health.

Belacan can last up to six months if it is wrapped in plastic and kept refrigerated. This is due to the salting, fermentation and long drying process of belacan ensures that it has a long shelf life. 

How I toast belacan

1.Take a portion of belacan and make a table tennis ball. Flatten it to faster cooks.

2. Dry toast it on medium heat until the belacan is dry. You can see that it is cracked and no longer sticky. It takes about 15 minutes. In between, flip the slices.

3. Take it out and let it cool.

A glance on what is Labu Sayong

Labu Sayong comes from the cottage industry in Kuala Kangsar, Perak. It has survived hundreds of years. It is a traditional water pitcher specifically moulded from the river clay found in the district.  

Patterns are carved onto the soft clay and the shaped vessels are then placed into the kiln to be baked at high temperature. 

The labu sayong are not just decorative but functional too as the porous clay filters the water to keep it cool and storage for other food items. For me, it’s good to keep belacan fresh.

These days, the water pitcher and container can be made hundreds using moulds. It also served for decorative purposes or other uses.

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