Belacan (Shrimp Paste)

Belacan is also known as shrimp paste in English. Belacan is a type of Malay condiment made of udang geragau (krill) that has been salted, dried and fermented for four months.

It is an essential ingredient in Malay cooking. The recipes that had belacan are sambal tumis, asam pedas, air asam, sambal belacan.

Essentially, there are two ways of making belacan either traditionally pound or make it using a machine.

It depends on the type of prawn that the maker used, technology for the processing and the machine that being used for drying. Thus, It varied from one maker to another.

There are many locals that produced belacan. However, the most popular belacan is made from Malacca and Tanjung Dawai in Kedah.

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 from the jetty and being carried to the kitchen for wash.

Cleaning the fresh prawn

The maker usually cleaned the prawn thoroughly by removed the head of the prawn and all the debris that stick to the prawn. They only took the flesh of fresh prawn.

Mixing with the fine salt

Then, the prawn is mixed using fine salt. They used only 10% of fine salt. For instance, given 50kg of cleaned fresh prawn, they used 5 kg of fine salt.

Drying the mixture

After mixing, they will spread the prawn and salt mixture on the mat for drying. Drying can be done either on plastic mats or on the ground under the sun. Let it partially dried.

Pounded the mixture

Subsequently after the mixture is partially dried, traditionally they will pound it with slight amount of water using a big mortar.

Fermentation

The pounded mixture is then wrapped with clean cloths and stored in a big pot for fermentation process to be done.

If the mixture is still moist, they will dried it under the sun and then pound it once again until the belacan texture is fine and turned into paste.

Repeat the process

The fermentation or grinding process is usually repeated several times until the paste fully matures.

How many days the belacan last?

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

  • Take a small portion of belacan and make a table tennis ball. Using a fork to place the belacan.

Using heat from the stove

  • Then, using the heat from the stove, turn into a medium heat.
  • Carefully brought the belacan that being place on the fork to the heat.
  • Toast the belacan and rotate the belacan evenly so that all the parts is cooked.

How to know the belacan toast is cooked?

  • Let the belacan cooked until it turn dry or changed the color from pink to pale brown. You can see that it will slightly cracked and no longer sticky
  • It takes about 15 minutes to toast the belacan.
  • 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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