Sambal Belacan is the ubiquitous Malay chilli paste or condiment found all across Singapore and Malaysia. No self respecting Malay home will be without it at the dinner table. You’ll find variants of it across South East Asia though, especially in Thailand (Nam Prik Kapi) and Indonesia (Sambal Terasi), where it is also a staple.
Sambal – a spicy chilli condiment, sauce and sometimes, side dish
Belacan – shrimp paste (the “c” is pronounced as in “ch”)
Besides the chillies, the identifying flavour of this much loved childhood chilli condiment is belacan, or shrimp paste, that dark brown fermented shrimp concoction that looks like poo and just screams umami. My kids will tell you that it does, in fact, smell like poo! You can read more about belacan or shrimp paste, and how to prepare it, here.
This, like so many chilli sauces and chilli pastes or condiments, is extremely easy to prepare and takes only about 10 minutes. All you need are some chillies, shrimp paste (non negotiable), limes, salt and sugar. That’s it – 5 ingredients.
How to Use Sambal Belacan
In Singapore and Malaysia, and here, at home, it is most commonly used as a condiment alongside your meal, whether that meal consists of rice and various side dishes or is a bowl of noodles, like our Laksa and Mee Siam here. For eg, last night, we had a very simple meal, consisting of a Malay style vegetable soup, rice and some omelette. The sambal belacan was a must for this, to add bite to the whole ensemble.
They are also to be found at hawker centres, much like you would find ketchup, mayo and vinegar in the West, for customers to just help themselves to.
What are Hawker Centres? They are open air food complexes consisting of many food and drink stalls, all selling their own special dishes. Some are small, with just about a dozen or so stalls, while others will have well over 20 stalls.
For ideas on dishes you can serve this with, you might want to look at the Singaporean and Malaysian page:
I recently did a post on a much loved Singaporean Noodle Dish called Bak Chor Mee. Now, this Sambal Belacan would do perfectly as the sambal for the noodle sauce. Sambal Belacan also adds spice and depth to stir fries.
As you can see in the first image, sambal belacan also makes for a fantastic salad dip, and I also use it as a canapé topping.
How Hot Can You Go?
That is completely up to you. My granny’s sambal belacan was always hot but not too hot. I don’t think she used chilli padi (bird’s eye chillies/Thai chillies), just your regular, cayenne or jalapeños. I’ve had some pretty hot ones and these are usually the ones made with just bird’s eye chillies. My sambal belacan is a mixture of the mild jalapeños and bird’s eye chillies. If you happen to love your chillies, you can always go for any record breaking type you fancy. But always fresh chillies, not dried.
Sambal Belacan is traditionally made with red chillies but you can also go for a mix of red and green, which is not uncommon.
For all thing chillies, you might fancy my still-growing Chilli Page:
What about the Belacan?
Well, it is called Sambal Belacan, so, really, the shrimp paste is a must in here. While I suggest Oriental dried shrimps as a suitable substitute, your result will not have the same depth of flavour.
How much belacan you use is also, to some, extent, a matter of taste. If I remember correctly, my granny didn’t use much, hers was always a slightly brighter red. I adore shrimp paste, so I always use a whole tablespoon as a starting point with the amount of chillies here. Experimenting is the way to go.
Pestle and Mortar or Chopper?
When we were very little, it was always made in a pestle and mortar or even the huge granite slab and roller thingy that we called Batu Giling in Malay. (Batu = stone, giling – roll). Pounding will give you a semi coarse texture and really does give you the best result. But honestly, while I have half a dozen pestle and mortars, I am always more inclined to go down the modern route. Especially when it comes to chillies, as my skin hates chillies! My granny started to doing it too when she got her old trusted Kenwood or Moulinex food processor. This is back in the 80s! If it was good enough for my granny … !
So, in other words, I shall leave that up to you!
That’s it, folks, have fun with it, another recipe in your South East Asian and chilli arsenal!
- 5 red jalapeños
- 5 red bird's eye chillies
- pinch of salt
- 1 tsp white sugar
- 1 Tbsp belacan, dry roasted, click for instructions
- juice of 1 Persian-type lime or 2 calamansi (tiny ones)
- the zest of 1 lime (optional)
- If you are using a pestle and mortar, start by pounding the chillies, sugar and salt.
- When it has reached the semi coarse stage, add the shrimp, pound for a minute.
- Then finally, add the lime juice and zest and mix well.
- Store in a clean jar in the fridge for up to 2 weeks.