Sambal belacan, or: why I’m glad I have a wet kitchen

24 Feb

I’ve mentioned sambal belacan before, but it really deserves its own post. Sambal belacan is a spicy condiment on every Malaysian table, whether the food served is Chinese-, Indian-, or Malay-Malaysian. It even inspired an ad campaign (NSF racially sensitive W):

As with so many condiments (mayonnaise, salsa, ketchup), sambal belacan is best made at home. So, armed with a stick of belacan, fresh chilis (two kinds!), a food processor, and the skills acquired at my class at Bayan Indah, I decided to rise to the challenge.

First, about belacan. As you might gather from the name, belacan is a key ingredient in this sambal (which basically means “sauce”). Belacan, as it’s known in Malaysia, is a fermented shrimp paste that’s a staple seasoning in Southeast Asian kitchens. (Though not in Vail, as I had to convince a Filipino girl I was on a ski trip with.) It comes in two forms: the softer, jarred kind (which you may recall seeing in the Chinese section of your local supermarket), and the block type, which is what’s used for sambal.

Don't let the resemblance to a stick of butter fool you

The belacan has to be toasted before use, and this is where the wet kitchen comes in. Because, holy prawn crackers, does this stuff stink. I’m on record as enjoying stinky foods, but I reeled back when I opened this package. You know the way open-air fish markets smell at the end of the day, when all the fishmongers have gone home, leaving nothing but drying piscine carcasses for the gulls? Or maybe this giant squid, if Good Samaritans hadn’t pushed it back into the ocean.

Something so potent must be tamed before consumption; the belacan is cut into tiny pieces (think pats of butter) and toasted in an oven until it turns slightly darker.

Belacan, ready for use

The cubes we used in class were considerably darker, like chocolate (I can imagine that leading to an unpleasant surprise for someone raiding the fridge), but I didn’t want to risk burning the suckers, so I pulled them after ten minutes in the oven. This is where the wet kitchen comes in handy: the oven and stove are outside the enclosed apartment space, so the level of belacan-stink in the house is minimized. Still, a little seeped in, and I had to bake a batch of cookies the next day to flush it out completely.

The rest of the sambal ingredients

The less, um, fragrant ingredients for the sambal: calamansi limes, Thai chilis, and the long red chili they just call “red” here. I think I’ve seen them in the US as “salsa chilis.” As the amount of chilis suggests, sambal belacan is on the spicy side, though you can adjust the capsaicin level by removing the seeds. Tradition calls for a mortar and pestle to pound all of these ingredients together, but that’s messy and hard work, so I opted for the food processor.

The finished product

Now the sambal is ready for dipping crudites, or tossing with blanched vegetables, or to accompany grilled fish. Interestingly, the belacan that was so pungent it nearly made me run away was now more of a subtle tang, a groovy base line as opposed to full-on funk. I even added a little bit. I don’t know if it was the toasting or the chilis or the lime juice, but the belacan gave the sambal a mellow edge of umami. Unfortunately, chilis seemed to gain potency, so I can only consume it in small amounts.

If you’d like to try it yourself, here’s the recipe:

Sambal belacan (Malaysian chili dip)

1/2 tsp tamarind paste extracted with 2 tbsp water (rub the tamarind pulp to extract juice)
3 large red chilies
4 to 6 small (birds’-eye) chilies, to taste
1 clove garlic
5 to 8 grams (about the size of one of those prepackaged butter pats) of belacan (shrimp paste), toasted
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
Juice of one calamansi lime, or half of a regular lime

Combine ingredients in food processor and process until the sambal forms a puree/paste. Adjust seasonings and serve with vegetables of choice, or as an accompaniment to grilled seafood or chicken.



4 Responses to “Sambal belacan, or: why I’m glad I have a wet kitchen”

  1. Lauren February 24, 2011 at 12:03 pm #

    YUM, good for you! Loving your blog. Also intrigued by Bayan Indah–what did you think of the classes there? Would you go again? I’ve never heard of it, but I love taking Malaysian cooking classes. My favorite so far has been Lazat in PJ.

    Also love the post on FRIM–that’s where we got engaged two years ago as we were hiking along!

    • rgautz February 24, 2011 at 5:03 pm #

      But did you have chilli pan mee after the engagement? Because that would have really sealed the deal. (Actually, we did see a Malay couple getting their wedding photos taken when we went to FRIM.)

      I haven’t taken any classes at Lazat, but I’ve heard that all of their classes are demos. Bayan Indah is all hands-on, which I prefer. Plus, Rohani is a real character, in addition to being a great cook. I was going to take the crab class but it filled up, and I’m gone for most of March — but I would love to take another class when I come back.

      • Lauren February 24, 2011 at 10:38 pm #

        Would love to go with if you go back, and we should definitely get a group together to go back to Lazat. They were so well organized, and we had our own big group so got to pick the menu for the day. Beef rendang anyone?

  2. Nate @ House of Annie February 24, 2011 at 5:34 pm #

    I love sambal belacan on fried rice. So ono!

    And that commercial is so cute.

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