Throughout the islands and coasts of Southeast Asia, the old tradition of fermenting the bounty of the seas has allowed people to survive year-round on their seasonal catches. Making shrimp paste is one such example, a tradition that is especially robust and still mostly done by fishing families in villages along the coast of the Straits of Malacca and the islands of Pangkor and Penang. There, fishermen are often seen wading in deep water in search of geragau, tiny shrimp that are caught at high tide. The larger shrimp or little fishes are thrown back, and the geragau that remain are destined to become shrimp paste, a distinctive smoky and salty ingredient that offers complexity and depth to any dish.
They are first rinsed in sea water and placed on stretched mats or large wooden trays to dry under the tropical sun. Once dried, the tiny shrimps are mixed with salt and sun dried again for eight hours. They are then crushed into a paste and fermented in large wooden trays for two weeks. The crushing and drying is repeated from time to time until the shrimp is disintegrated and becomes a dense, dark reddish-brown paste. Finally, the paste is pressed into round or rectangular shapes and left under the sun to dry before it is packed. The shrimp paste, or belachan (pronounced buh-LAH-chan and sometimes spelled blachenor or blachan) is packaged with the family’s brand and sold to market vendors for resale to consumers, or to middlemen and distributors.
The complex, savory taste that shrimp paste brings is unparalleled in the world of global cuisine. Don’t let the pungent smell deter you, as the smell dissipates during cooking. The flavor of shrimp paste is a little bit of many things: salty, slightly bitter, roasted, and fermented. When it is present in a curry, stir-fry, or condiment, the shrimp paste will act as a hidden ingredient; you taste only a unique complexity and depth unlike anything else you’ve ever experienced, a wow factor that leaves the palate yearning for more. It especially pairs well with chilies.
In Asian groceries, it is easy to find different styles of shrimp paste, each one from a different country; you can also buy it online. There are Malaysian (belachan), Indonesian (trassi), Thai (kapi), Vietnamese (mam ruoc), and Filipino (bagoong) varieties. Some of them may be dyed a deep pink color, but the reddish-dark brown blocks in white wrappers from Malaysia work best and are most authentic for the recipes in this book. Most of the shrimp paste in the market is raw, so once purchased it’s best to store the paste in an airtight bag in the refrigerator.
To toast shrimp paste: If you are going to fry the shrimp paste with other spices or ingredients, then you do not need to cook it first. However, if you are adding it to raw ingredients that will not be cooked, it will need to be toasted before you use it. The best way to toast shrimp paste is to wrap it in several sheets of aluminum foil, then bake it in a 350 degrees F oven for about 30 minutes. To test if the paste is fully toasted, press the foil using firm pressure with large wooden spoon. If the paste is completely toasted, the foil will collapse approximately in half as the paste inside crumbles. Allow it to cool before opening the foil. Alternatively, you can cook a larger batch by frying it in hot oil until flaky. Store the cooled toasted belachan in an airtight glass gar in the pantry. Given the high salt content, shrimp paste, whether raw or toasted, has a long shelf life.
There is no substitute for shrimp paste and it should not be confused with fish sauce or anchovy paste, which are very different in characteristics.
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Cover courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Shrimp Paste is excerpted from THE MALAYSIAN KITCHEN © 2017 by Christina Arokiasamy. Food Photography © 2017 by Penny De Los Santos. On-Location Photography © 2017 by David Hagerman. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.