Now that we know what sambal is, what about belacan? Well, it is certainly not for someone with a weak stomach or nose. Like the infamous durian, the thorny fruit whose smell has often been described as resembling a dirty toilet or wet socks, belacan has its own unique pungent aroma. Made from sun-dried ground shrimp, it is left to ferment for days before it is sold in the shape of brown rectangular blocks. To Western noses, belacan can be pretty unappetizing but when combined with sambal, it creates a new dimension of smell and flavor. The smokiness and decidedly strong aroma provides a nice counterpoint to the spiciness of the sambal, unapologetically showcasing what South-East Asian cuisine is all about: strong flavors with just a little uneasy pungency. Belacan is quite a rare item here in the U.S. and can only be found in certain Asian specialty stores. It can be quite hard to procure unless you have the right connections!
Growing up in Malaysia, no meal is complete without sambal belacan. It is easy to make and can last up to a week in the refrigerator. Here is what you need:
2 oz block of belacan
8 red jalapeños (deseeded)
3 - 4 Thai bird chilis (deseeded)
3 tablespoons of fresh squeezed lime juice
1 teaspoon of sugar
Salt to taste
First, the belacan needs to be toasted. Be careful to turn on your stove's hood ventilator because the pungent smell will permeate just about everywhere (just ask my kids as they head out the door to escape!). When softened, you can either use a mortar and pestle to ground it up or just cut it into smaller cubes to get it ready for the food processor. Traditionally, sambal belacan is prepared exclusively on a mortar and pestle but less than a minute in a modern food processor should provide the same result as well. Some people like their sambal belacan a little on the chunky side where you can still make out tiny pieces of the various chilis. And this is achievable only on a mortar and pestle. When using a food processor, pretty much everything is shredded fine (just like what you see in the picture above). So, just add all the ingredient above into the food processor and voila! sambal belacan.