Mum’s cookbook: Sambal belacan

Chili padi and pasteThis week’s post will be another fiery and pungent condiment that is a must-have on many Singaporean and Malaysian dining tables. Sambal is a chili-based sauce combined with belacan, a fermented shrimp paste, to give this dish its unique, one-of-a-kind taste and flavor.

I have grown up eating my mum’s homemade sambal belacan, which we use on its own as a condiment or as a basic ingredient to make signature local dishes such as laksa and curry chicken. Its popularity could be accrued to its versatility and also the depth and complexities in its taste.

On first bite, the overwhelming spiciness from the Thai bird’s eye chili or chili padi (see picture above) as it is known locally will set your mouth on fire. It will be followed by an intense shrimp taste that could be a hit or miss because of the belacan’s strong odor. Combine both and they nicely complement each other to bring out the spiciness without the rawness with a smoky punch to it.

The ingredients are incredibly simple and almost effortless to make. Search your nearest Asian supermarket for dried belacan usually sold in blocks such as the picture shown below.

Brand of belacan that we typically use
Brand of belacan that we typically use

My mum uses a quicker and faster way to make our sambal belacan by using a blender to blitz all the chili up. If you prefer using the traditional method, you could pound the chili up with a mortar and pestle.

As a word of caution, be careful when dealing with chili, especially sliced ones, because they will cause your hands to burn. Try to avoid direct contact with the raw chili with bare skin. Wear a glove if necessary.

Recipe makes about 250g of sambal belacan, which will last for a good 6 months if kept refrigerated.

Sambal belacan

75g dried belacan
200g chili padi
1 tsp sugar

1. Break block of belacan into small chunks (picture below L) and fry until dry and fragrant. While frying, use back of spoon to crumble belacan chunks till it becomes powder form. (picture below R) Alternatively, you could bake the belacan.

(At this point, if you are cringing and pinching your nose from the pungent shrimp smell, you are getting it right.)
Belacan chunks to powder2. Blend chili padi, belacan powder and sugar till it becomes smooth paste. Regularly check if paste is thoroughly mixed and blended. Instead of blending, you could also pound the mixture with mortar and pestle.

Side notes:
– For a milder paste, remove chili seeds before blending. We kept them in to give it an extra spicy kick.
– Some online recipes add water to help smooth out the blending process. However, do note that adding water will also decrease the shelf life of the chili paste to under a month.
– If you find that the final product is dry and hard to stir through easily, add more sugar.

Sambal belacan pasteTo serve up the sambal belacan, scoop small teaspoonfuls of the paste together with a good squeeze of calamansi juice and some sugar.

A word of caution: When consuming the chili paste, BE PRUDENT because sambal belacan is no tabasco sauce. I have seen too many friends and relatives tearing up and gulping water after underestimating it so less is always more in this case.

Once again, this recipe will make an extremely spicy chili paste not for the weak hearted, so you have been sufficiently warned.

For more of delicious recipes, click here.

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