Dried Shrimp Paste a.k.a Belacan
Dried Shrimp Paste, known as Belacan in Malaysia, Terasi in Indonesia, and by a variety of other names elsewhere, is not widely used, or even known in the West. The ingredient can be very pungently aromatic when raw, and even actively unpleasant to some, but this ceases to be an issue once it is cooked, and the umami richness adds terrific depth to all sorts of dishes.
What is Dried Shrimp Paste?
Well, clearly, Dried Shrimp Paste is Shrimp Paste that has been dried. However, Shrimp Paste, in this context, does not simply mean ground Shrimp, but rather refers to preparations composed of finely crushed Shrimp or Krill mixed with salt, and then fermented for varying lengths of time. The resultant Pastes are sold in jars and are widely from China, through mainland South-East Asia, to Indonesia and the Philippines.
Although most commonly used as a ‘Wet’ Paste, these preparations are also pressed into cakes and dried for storage and use. These cakes are predominantly used in the cuisines of Malaysia and Indonesia, but also in Thailand, and the Philippines as well. In the picture above, you can see a block of Malaysian Belacan still in its original commercial package, and this sort packaging is typically how the product is sold for home use.
Above is the label for a product similar to the one in the previous photograph. It too is a product of Malaysia, and thus called ‘Belacan’, and, as you can see, it is composed of just Shrimp and Salt. The previous package, however, also indicates that a little Vegetable Oil and ‘Preservatives’ are used in addition to Shrimp and Salt, although the nature of the preservatives is not specified.
The Texture, Taste and Smell of Dried Shrimp Paste
Here, you can see a close-up picture of a slice of Balacan. The raw product fresh from the package has a consistency a bit like moderately soft Toffee, or a very heavy dough, in that it is pliable and can be pressed and squeezed into different shapes. If you look closely, you can see that it is mostly homogenous, but there is some mottling of different color and some visible specks of shell.
The smell is, to be quite frank, not especially pleasing, and can be very off-putting to some people. It is not as bad as some of the Chinese ‘Wet’ Pastes, which can have a rather vomit-like quality to their smell, but it is very much a decomposed-shrimp sort of aroma. As I mentioned earlier, though, the smell dissipates during cooking and does not affect the aromas of any cooked dish.
As for the taste, I am happy to report that it is nowhere close to the aroma, at least as far as being actively offensive. Belacan, or any equivalents, are almost exclusively cooked before being consumed, but the raw taste,if you care to try it, has a pungently low-tide sort of taste. A ‘shrimpiness’ is evident, but it is more of a generic fermented fish type quality, and indeed, it is similar to the bottled Asian Fish Sauces that are becoming increasingly more common in the West. Dried Shrimp Paste tends not to be quite as salty as Fish Sauce, or Soy Sauce, though, but this can vary from product to product so be aware of this and adjust for salt accordingly when using any of them.
In cooking, Belacan, or any other Dried Shrimp Paste, adds an Umami depth to dishes, but does not add much of a fermented Shrimp flavor unless a lot is used. In this regard, it is a bit like Anchovy Paste as used in Italian cooking, where a little added when making, say, a tomato-based sauce, improves the overall flavor but does not betray its presence. That is to say, you don’t know its in there unless you… well, know its in there.
Preparing Belacan for Use
As noted, Dried Shrimp Pastes are almost always used in a cooked state rather than raw. Indeed, it is often toasted before being used, typically by heating it in a little foil over a flame or stove element as shown above. This not only has the benefit of killing any bacteria that may be present (important for those products with low salt levels), it also improves the flavor in the same way toasting whole spices makes them more aromatic.
Once toasted, Belacan can be crumbled in to a powder as seen in the above picture. This powder is now ready to be used as a flavoring agent for all manner of dishes.
Using Dried Shrimp Paste in Recipes
One of the primary ways in which Belacan, or other sort of Dried Shrimp Paste, is used, is as a component in more complex Spice Pastes for use in Curries and the like. Many people in the West are familiar with Sambal Oelek these days, but fewer are aware that this basic Chili and Salt preparation is the simplest type of a whole range of ‘Sambals’, one of which includes Belacan ans is, appropriately enough, called Sambal Belacan. I small bowl of this is shown in the picture above.
The Paste shown above is an Indonesian equivalent of Sambal Belacan and is called Sambal Terasi (given that Terasi is the Indonesian name for Dried Shrimp Paste). The two Sambals are very similar, but the Terasi type illustrated here is very much hotter as it uses Thai Bird’s eye Chillies.
Here is a Beef Curry made with my own Homemade Sambal Belacan as the main flavor base.
Sambal Terasi adds the fire to my own Malay Shrimp Curry with Coconut Milk
These Chicken Wings get a double jolt of chili and Dried Shrimp Paste through the use of both Sambal Belacan, and Sambal Terasi.