Belacan is a condiment made of geragau (krill) that has been salted, dried and fermented, and is an essential ingredient in Peranakan and Malay cuisine. It is usually mixed with chili, lime, salt and sugar to create sambal belacan, a must-have chili condiment accompanying meals eaten in many Peranakan, Malay and Eurasian households in Singapore and Malaysia.1
Belacan is made with krill (tiny shrimp-like crustaceans) known in Kristang (a Portuguese creole language) as gerago or geragau. The geragau is traditionally hand-caught in the waters off the Malaysian port cities of Penang and Malacca along the Straits of Malacca. Fishermen wade through coastal waters, trawling for the shrimp using a shungkol, which is a unique wire-meshed net sewn onto two crossed poles.2 “Fishermen wade through coastal waters, trawling for the shrimp using a sungkor (or shungkol) – a net sewn onto two crossed poles. This method of fishing is carried out during the neap tide, and the haul is said to be most fruitful between the months of October and December”.3
The shrimps caught are washed in seawater before being semi-dried on mats or wooden racks along the beach. They are then mixed with salt – six katis (1kati is about 500g) of salt to every picul (about 60kg) of krill – and passed through a meat grinder before being dried again for about a week. This process of drying and passing the dried shrimp through the meat grinder is usually carried out a number of times over several weeks until the paste is as soft as clay. Usually, only one picul of belacan can be obtained from three piculs of shrimps.4
Fermented in earthenware pots, the mashed geragau turns from a pink colour to a shade of dark reddish brown. It is then pressed into thin rectangular blocks or circular discs, and dried in the sun prior to being wrapped with paper or plastic. The salting, fermentation and long drying process of belacan ensures that it has a long shelf life. Belacan can last up to 6 months if it is wrapped in plastic and kept refrigerated.5
In the early days, belacan was pressed into tampins, or conical containers woven out of mengkuang (a variety of pine) leaves and then sold in the market.6 Nowadays, belacan is sold in supermarkets and shops in the form of either a hard block or as a liquid stored in jars. Nutritionists have found that belacan contains high levels of calcium and protein as whole shrimps are used in making this condiment.7
In Singapore and Malaysia, belacan is used to enhance dishes, with a teaspoonful or two used in cooking. In Indonesia, belacan is sometimes eaten directly with plain rice. Belacan is never eaten uncooked. When belacan is heated, the fermented paste has a strong smell that non-locals may find unpleasant. It has a strong fishy taste, but when mixed with other ingredients, belacan imparts a unique flavour to any dish.8
A dollop of belacan is usually toasted or sautéed prior to use. In Indonesia, a small quantity is skewered onto a bamboo stick and placed over an open flame until it is lightly charred. Modern cooks recommend wrapping a small portion of belacan in aluminium foil before placing it over a heat source to ensure that it does not burn.9
Belacan is believed to have been first manufactured about 200 years ago in Malacca.10 It was so closely associated with Malacca that it was given the nickname “Malacca cheese”. Others suggest that the condiment was originally made in Penang at Kampong Awak, a fishing settlement on the island’s north coast.11
In the traditional method of making belacan, the semi-dried and salted shrimps are placed into holes dug out of the ground. Thereafter, women would trample on these dried shrimps for at least an hour in large wooden tubs before the drying process began again.12 English author Isabella Bird described in her 1883 book, The Golden Chersonese and the Way Thither, how belachan was made with bare feet “trampling a mass of putrefying prawns and shrimps into a paste”.13 In the modern era, this process of mashing is done with machinery.
The process of drying the shrimps in the old days was done under conditions that have been described as noxious. A 1924 article by The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser newspaper noted that blowflies were a common sight around the drying paste and that the paste could even be infested with maggots.14 Despite the often unsanitary manufacturing processes, the Chinese, Malays and Eurasians in Malaya still keenly appreciated belacan fried with chillies, onions, garlic and aromatic herbs in their dishes.15
In his 1879 book The Manners and Customs of the Chinese of the Straits Settlements, author J. D. Vaughan described another method of how belacan was made in the late 19th century. Shelled shrimps were fermented in rice water (water in which rice had been boiled in), and once fermentation had begun, the mix was removed from the water and sun-dried before being grounded with spices. The belacan was then ready to be used on its own or mixed with other ingredients to be turned into a sambal or chilli paste. Vaughan considered belacan comparable to superior caviar, but also described it as an acquired taste and noted that Europeans would find the condiment’s smell objectionable.16
Belacan Bintulu is considered to be distinct from common belacan as it is made from a shrimp native to the Sarawak fishing village of Bintulu. The main ingredient is bubuk or urang (shrimp) that is mixed with sago. Belacan Bintulu has a sweet taste and is dark pink without any artificial colouring being added to it.17
Dried shrimp paste21
Burma: ngapé22, ngapi
Indonesia: terasi,23 terassi, trassi24
Thailand: kapi,25 gapi26
1. “Recipes: Sambal Belacan,” Straits Times, 19 February 1983, 3. (From NewspaperSG); Lee Geok Boi, Classic Asian Noodles (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Cuisine, 2007), 206. (Call no. RSING 641.822 LEE).
2. “A Malayan Industry,” Straits Times, 14 January 1934, 17. (From NewspaperSG)
3. S. M. Nurul Amin, et al., “Acetes Fishery in Malaysia,” Fishmail 19 (April–September 2011): 10–11.
4. Shukor Rahman, “Blachan: Where It All Began,” Straits Times, 9 July 1973, 14. (From NewspaperSG)
5. James Oseland, Cradle of Flavor: Home Cooking from the Spice Islands of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore (New York: Norton, 2006), 66. (Call no. RSING 641.5959 OSE)
6. “Malayan Industry.”
7. Alice Yen Ho, At the South--East Asian Table (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1995), 27. (Call no. RSING 394.10959 HO -[CUS])
8. Oseland, Cradle of Flavor, 66.
9. Oseland, Cradle of Flavor, 66.
10. “Malayan Industry.”
11. Rahman, “Blachan.”
12. “Malayan Industry.”
13. Isabella Lucy Bird, The Golden Chersonese and the Way Thither (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1883), 180. (Call no. RRARE 915.91 BIR; microfilm NL7462)
14. “The Belachan Trade,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 27 September 1924, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
15. “Balachan,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 29 August 1925, 11. (From NewspaperSG)
16. Jonas Daniel Vaughan, The Manners and Customs of the Chinese of the Straits Settlements (Singapore: Mission Press, 1879), 36–37. (From BookSG)
17. “Belacan Bintulu, Beyond Compare,” New Straits Times, 7 April 2011. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)
18. Oseland, Cradle of Flavor, 66.
19. “Malayan Industry.”
20. Bird, Golden Chersonese and the Way Thither, 180.
21. Oseland, Cradle of Flavor, 65.
22. “A History of Curry,” Singapore Free Press, 5 August 1931, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
23. Ho, South--East Asian Table, 26.
24. Oseland, Cradle of Flavor, 66.
25. Ho, South--East Asian Table, 26.
26. Oseland, Cradle of Flavor, 66.
The information in this article is valid as at 26 June 2013 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.