Belacan

Sambal Belacan

Sambal belacan is one of the most popular condiments in Malaysian (Malay) cuisine often served as an accompaniment to rice, which is a staple food for Malaysians.

In its simplest form, the basic ingredients for sambal belacan are fresh chilies (usually red while green is also used though to a considerably lesser extent), belacan (a fermented shrimp paste) and kalamansi lime juice.

More often however, Malaysians opt to jazz up the simple version with a variety of ingredients such as shallots, garlic, lemongrass, tomatoes, tamarind juice and fermented durian paste (known locally as “tempoyak”) to name a few. This has resulted in an endless array of sambal belacan “varieties”. There are no fixed ingredients for sambal belacan with different families having their own sambal belacan recipes.

Regardless of ingredient variations, fresh red chilies and belacan are key ingredients, without which, the condiment would no longer be “sambal belacan”. Malaysia offers a wide variety of chilies, and for sambal belacan, most often it is ripe fresh red chilies (not green) that are used.

These ripe, fresh red chilies are known as “cili merah” in Malay (“cili” = “chili”, “merah” = “red) and in elsewhere in the world, these chilies could be identified as red cayenne peppers. They are soft to the touch, a vibrant red in color, about 3 ½ to 4 inches in length and about ½ to ¾ of an inch in diameter at their thickest section.

Since this particular red chili variety does not rank too high on the Scoville scale for the average Malaysian, it is common for some fresh bird’s eye chilies (known locally as “cili padi”) to be thrown in as well for extra heat. Although bird’s eye chilies are considerably smaller than “cili merah”, these seemingly-innocent chilies pack substantially more heat.

Belacan is a paste of fermented shrimp and salt. A good belacan is imperative for a quality sambal belacan.

To make sambal belacan, traditionally, belacan is first lightly toasted over a charcoal fire until it turns aromatic and powdery. Next, this is combined with fresh chilies and other ingredients in a traditional pestle and mortar, known as a “lesong” or “lesung” which may be made of wood or granite. The ingredients are pounded and then the sambal is ready to serve.

For convenience and efficiency, modern day households may opt for modern electric appliances such as food processors instead of Malaysia’s traditional kitchen tool, the “lesung”. However, good things take time and usage of these modern equipment may come at the expense of quality, nutrition and authenticity.

Pounding the ingredients in the traditional pestle and mortar is believed to better extract the flavors as well as mix the flavors together which results in a far more authentic outcome than when modern kitchen tools are used.

Consequently, sambal belacan produced according to the traditional method is generally accepted to be more flavorful and wholesome compared to those produced in a haste.

Version 1 (classic, traditional)

Yield: ¼ cup

Ingredients:

  • 5-6 fresh red chilies – discard stalks
  • 1-2 fresh bird’s eye chilies (add more for extra heat) – discard stalks
  • 1 – 1 ½ tablespoons belacan
  • 1 fresh kalamansi lime – juiced

Method:

Over a low flame, toast the belacan until it dries, turns powdery and is aromatic. Do not burn.

Combine the toasted belacan with the chilies in a stone pestle and mortar. Pound until fine.

When ready to serve, add kalamansi lime juice and mix thoroughly.

Taste and make adjustments if necessary (usually this involves adding salt or kalamansi lime juice).

Serve immediately.

Version 2 (“Sambal Belacan Tomato”)

Yield: 1/3 cup

Ingredients:

  • 5-6 fresh red chilies – discard stalks
  • 1-2 fresh bird’s eye chilies (add more for extra heat) – discard stalks
  • 1 ½ – 2 tablespoons belacan
  • 2 shallots
  • 1 semi-ripe fresh tomato – roughly chopped
  • 1 kalamansi lime – juiced

Method:

Over a low flame, toast the belacan until it dries, turns powdery and is aromatic.  Do not burn.

Combine the toasted belacan with the chilies and shallots in a stone pestle and mortar. Pound until fine.

When well pounded, add roughly chopped tomato and pound again. The tomatoes should retain some bite, not be too mushy.

When ready to serve, add kalamansi lime juice and mix thoroughly.

Taste and make adjustments if necessary (usually this involves adding salt or kalamansi lime juice).

Serve immediately.