Shrimp paste is made from grounded tiny shrimps and salt. The mixture is then dried under the sun. There are many varieties and consistencies of shrimp paste throughout Southeast Asia. For example, mắm tôm from Vietnam or kapi from Thailand. In Singapore, Brunei and Malaysia, it is known as belacan. Those who are not familiar with the pungent odour might find it offensive. However, this is actually a gem used in many Southeast Asian cuisines.
The exact history of belacan is unknown although there are stories of belacan originating from Malacca and Penang. In Malacca, it is even nicknamed the "Malaccan cheese". A dictionary by William Marsden which was published in 1812 documented the word balachan*. It was translated as “caviare made of shrimps”. A few years later, Isabella Bird who is one of history's most celebrated female travelers has her day-to-day life stories in Malacca published in her 1833 book entitled The Golden Chersonese and The Way Thither. In one specific paragraph, she explained that *blachang was made by “trampling a mass of putrefying prawns and shrimps into a paste with bare feet” back in the days and even compared it to ‘decomposed cheese’. Now, at least we know that belacan has a history of over 200 years.
Although packed with a pungent smell, a tiny bit of shrimp paste goes a long way. It brings out the umami flavour when it's added into a dish. It is indeed a wonderful ingredient to be used as a base for condiments, sauces or gravies because of its depth of flavour. As shrimp paste comes in different varieties, the odor also varies accordingly. Darker coloured belacan is usually more pungent compared to those which are lighter.
The best belacan consists of only two ingredients - finely grounded shrimps that are boiled and salted before being dried under the sun. Belacan is made with very tiny prawns called krill or ‘geragau’ to the locals. As there is a reduction in the population of krill, it resulted in the price increased of belacan. Therefore, some producers opted for fishes as a substitute.
The quality of belacan varies depending on several factors such as the way it is processed, the duration of fermentation, the ratio between salt and tiny shrimps and the use of additional ingredients.
Method of processing
Traditionally, the tiny shrimps are pounded until fine. Compared to shrimps which are blended, the traditional way of processing ensures flavourful and aromatic belacan as the sweetness of the krill is maintained.
Most shrimp paste producers still use the olden drying method to dry shrimp paste. The mixture of salt and pounded krill is dried under the sun. At the end of the day, the mixture is pounded again before the next round of sun drying. This is done repeatedly until it hardens and the colour darkens. The longer the drying duration, the darker it becomes. As stated in the Malaysian Food Act 1983 (Peraturan-peraturan Makanan 1983), belacan should contain no more than 40 per cent of water. Excess moisture may spoil the shelf life of shrimp paste.
Ratio of salt vs. krill
The right amount of salt should be 15% to 20% of total weight of the pounded shrimps. Too much salt in the mixture will spoil the natural taste of the shrimps whereas lack of salt spoils the fermentation and preservation process. Also, according to the Malaysian Food Act 1983 states that ‘belacan’ must contain at least 15% of salt.
Besides salt, some producers swear that the taste improves when sugar is added. This is however optional. Sometimes, baby fishes may be processed together with krill if they are not meticulously segregated. This results in an unpleasant bitter taste in belacan. Another trick to thicken the mixture while cutting down on the amount of krill used is to have rice flour in the paste. The flavour is then enhanced with Monosodium glutamate (MSG) and artificial colouring to make it similar to belacan. When there is an imbalance amount of ingredients and addition of other ingredients, it will jeopardize the quality of the shrimp paste. Therefore, preservatives must be added to ensure it has a longer shelf life.