Image: Several types of belacan produced by a cottage producer from Melaka (Malacca), seen here for sale at a fresh market in Selangor, Malaysia.
Belacan is a staple ingredient in Malaysian (Malay) cuisine. It is a paste of fermented shrimp and sea salt, used as a base for condiments such as “sambal belacan” (click here for our authentic sambal belacan recipe) or as a flavor enhancer to dishes such as “kangkung belacan”.
Traditional (artisanal) production process of belacan in Malaysia:
Traditionally, a good belacan starts with the freshest shrimp (not dried), and it is imperative that only a particular small shrimp variety is used (known as “udang geragau” in Malay, “udang” = “shrimp”). Using the right variety of shrimp coupled with its freshness are important factors for a quality outcome. Udang geragau is not available all year round and consequently, traditional belacan production is a seasonal industry.
There are different methods for producing belacan however the basic procedure of sun-drying and pounding is the generally same.
First, the fresh shrimp would first be thoroughly cleaned of impurities such as sand and grit. Next, the shrimp is mixed with coarse sea salt (about 10%-15% of the weight of the shrimp). The salt functions primarily as a preservative. Next, the shrimp-salt mixture is pounded in a traditional wooden pestle and mortar known as a “lesong” or “lesung”. The pounded mixture is then sun-dried and then pounded again until the mixture resembles a thick paste. The paste is sun-dried and pounded again, a process which is repeated at least three times, which could take weeks to complete. This drying process is critical for a quality belacan, not just to bring out maximum flavor but also for preservation purposes too. This is because moisture dramatically reduces the shelf life of the product. Properly dried, the belacan can be retained for at least 6 months without refrigeration.
Once the paste has reached an optimum state of dryness, they are molded, usually by hand into disks, cylinders or rectangular blocks.
A wide array of belacan types are produced and sold. Belacan nipis, belacan kepal, belacan segi, belacan kering, belacan bakar and belacan basah are some examples.
A number of artisan belacan-makers continue to ply their craft in pockets of Malaysia. For instance, artisanal, traditional, cottage-industry belacan producers could be found in places such as Melaka (Malacca), Terengganu and Sarawak.
However, fair amounts of belacan available in stores are also produced from large-scale commercial operations, utilizing modern production methods. These modern production methods have introduced considerable change to the original method of producing belacan. For instance, the sun-drying process is skipped or reduced, and instead the process is hastened through machine-drying. The traditional wooden “lesong” is also done away with, and is replaced with modern machinery. Sometimes preservatives are added which diminishes the nutritional value of the product. While these modern alterations to belacan production result in a more efficient production process, belacan “connoisseurs” however generally agree that these short-cuts come at the expense of quality and consequently the resulting output fails to match the flavor of original belacan produced the traditional way.