Friday, June 22, 2012

sambal belacan (chilli and shrimp paste relish)

It hit me a few days ago, that sambal belacan or sambal terasi as it's known in Indonesia, keeps popping up on my blog, as a suggestion with this, that and the other dish. How could I not keep bringing it up, when sambal belcan is one of the cornerstones of Malay, Nyonya, Indonesian and to a slightly lesser extent, Kristang (local Portuguese descended Eurasian) cuisine?

five day supply of kristang crack

The fact that it is the common thread running through these cuisines speaks volumes about how closely linked they actually are, though to the casual observer, they may appear distinct from each other. 

I decided it just wouldn't do to keep mentioning it without including a recipe and giving you at least a good eyeful if not an actual taste of the wonderful, stinky, glorious stuff! A meal in my house is incomplete without it - no mere exaggeration, you will see if you read on. Sambal belacan is to us, as ketchup is to the West, or kimchi is to Korea and is indispensable on our dining tables. 

belacan all warm and toasty

Here in Singapore, it is served alongside white rice and a seemingly unending host of dishes including ikan asam pedas (hot and sour fish curry), ayam panggang (spicy grilled chicken), sayur lodeh (vegetables in spiced coconut milk), semur daging (spiced soy braised beef), ayam buah keluak (chicken curry with Indonesian black nut or pangium edule), Eurasian oxtail stew or chicken stew and beef ambila (Eurasian beef curry with long beans).

I'll go out on a limb here, risk flying bricks and say that we Kristangs adopted sambal belacan from the Malays (as did the Nyonyas) but have embraced it probably more passionately than anyone else, including the Malays themselves. Alright, I'll admit my Kristang brethren may just possibly be slightly less enamoured of the pungent relish than I am, but, it is my mustard, mayo, ketchup, barbecue sauce, steak sauce, chilli sauce, nam pla prik and wasabi all rolled into one gorgeous, tongue tripping, nose tingling delight! 

We eat it with Malay food, Nyonya food, Indonesian food, Chinese food and our food. I eat it with bread and butter, in grilled cheese or tuna mayo sandwiches, dip keropok (fried fish or prawn crackers), French fries, Ritz crackers and toss mango (both green and ripe), avocado, cucumber, guava and pineapple in it, slather it over burgers, bacon, steak and fried eggs, stir it through fried noodles, dollop it on fried rice; I even ate tuna sashimi with it once, when I ran out of wasabi. I now know I prefer wasabi with my maguro, but it was definitely an interesting mix...

The scent of belacan takes some getting used to, but I would take it over the funky bouquet of a durian or wedge of blue cheese any day of the week. While all you can do about the smell of durian is to stand as far back as possible, a well toasted slab of belacan poses no more of a challenge to the nose than a fish cracker might. Problem solved!
I should clarify here, that sambal belacan (the relish), is always, always made with toasted belacan, while the chilli and belacan paste used for cooking dishes like sambal kangkung (water spinach in chilli paste), nasi goreng (fried rice) and prawn sambal is a mixture of raw belacan (usually, onion too) and chillies. Belacan is made from salted, crushed and sun dried krill which is locally known as geragok. As we all know, crusty creatures from the briny depths of the sea are all jam packed with flavour, so little surprise that belacan is a beguiling mouthful of pungent, sweet, savoury, salty umami heaven. Accept no substitutes!!!!

Interestingly, geragok is a derogatory term for Eurasians of Portuguese descent in Singapore and Malaysia. The term came about because in the past, many, many Portuguese descended Eurasians in Malacca earned their living by krill fishing, and well, let's just say that rocket scientists don't become fishermen and no one ever got to be a millionaire that way, so for a long time, the term was used as a put down. 

As Malacca was and is the cradle of Kristang culture, all Kristangs even outside of Malacca came to be commonly referred to as geragok. It seems satisfyingly fitting then, that we geragok, love our sambal belacan. These days though, the term is much less common and no longer bears the same sting it once did..... or maybe copious belacan consumption has dulled our sense of indignation and sharpened our sense of humour ;)


  1. I love sambal belachan and always get this from one of my friends in Malaysia. Love the colour and the shrimp flavour in this...and of course the spicy note!

  2. 12 fresh red chiles and 10 bird's eye chiles, oh man I need to try this jar of happiness!!

  3. Gorgeous photos! I love your new blog;-) I wouldn't mind kicking my meals up a notch!

  4. Wishing all your books selling like hot chili sambal...haha..... I'm sure you're really busy & exhausting now but would love to hear everything about it from you soon. Do keep in touch, sayang.

  5. Grew up with this and had it almost every meal. Mom always had a tub in the fridge. Love it on almost everything but have to admit I have never had it on bread. Love it in kerabu timun ;)

  6. I'm so thrilled that I found your blog with all the yummy Singaporean style food!

    I'm a Singapore living in Melbourne, Australia and here I am following you at Twitter and "like" you at Facebook.

  7. Chilli and shrimp paste are great by themselves, but combine them and it looks awesome.

  8. What a gorgeous condiment! Thank you for the explanation, history and recipe!

  9. I just have to try this...and you know my oldest would go crazy for it! Wonderful!!!

  10. This is great. I love learning about the staple condiments of global cuisines and this one looks and sounds amazing. At home I like to make my own mustard and ketchup- this recipe is next on my list!

  11. Yum looking post with great photography. Came here from your bhindi post. I think blanchan is shrimp. How will it taste if I avoid it and make the paste

    1. Yes, belacan is made from a tiny type of shrimp called krill. If you made the paste without it, the sambal would taste like a garlicky chilli paste. I can't really think of any suitable substitutes if you wanted to make it vegan, but if you're just avoiding shrimp, you can try making it with toasted and pounded dried anchovies (ikan bilis) instead of belacan.

  12. Hi! I love how informative and great your articles are. Can you recommend a List of Citrus Fruits or blogs that go over the same topics? Thanks a lot!


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