If you aren’t familiar with local cooking techniques and dishes, chances are you won’t know what to do when presented with a block of raw belacan. Firstly, the odour can be overpowering and not to mention plainly unpleasant to some people. However, looks and smells can be deceiving and it certainly is amazing how that distinctive odour becomes an appetizing aroma once heated and toasted in a pan. You often do not need a large quantity of belacan to cook a dish. Only a little is needed but is absolutely essential to the final taste, quality, texture of a dish. Leave out the belacan in signature dishes such as asampedas and your dish will be considered a failure.
So what kind of dishes can one whip up using belacan? Again, we remind you that not all belacan is created equal. In our case, it’s only belacan from Melaka or nothing else. Penang belacan is our closest rival and with its dark brown chocolate colour and dense texture, you will get a different result in your cooking. However, we leave it to your personal preferences but reiterate that Melaka belacan is our pick!
Dishes cooked with belacan are obviously local favourites and so far, we haven’t come across any Western dishes which use it. But since cooking is a versatile art, we hope that some creative being will one day come up with a fusion dish using belacan. Here are some popular dishes which need this all-important ingredient to qualify.
Asampedas is synonymous with Melaka cuisine. Mention this dish and everyone has their favourite version and favourite stall, restaurant or outlet to recommend. Served with white rice and side garnishings of fresh “ulam” and sometimes hard-boiled salted egg,its humble appearance belies its complex tastes. True to its name which literally translates to mean “sour and spicy”, the gravy is both piquant and taste bud tickling. For the benefit of those who have yet to taste this signature dish of Melaka and who are probably have no idea what it is, AsamPedas is basically fish cooked in a chilli and tamarind based gravy with ladies fingers (okra) and brinjal (eggplant). The type of fish used is typically stingray (“pari”) ,Spanish Mackeral (“tenggiri), wolf herring (“parang”) and Mackeral (“kembong”). The base “rempah” is finely ground wet spices consisting of dried chilly, shallots, ginger, galangal, lemongrass and of course, belacan. The base is gently sautéed in hot oil till fragrant and then made into a gravy with fresh tamarind extract. Then the fish (which should be as fresh as possible) and vegetables are added and gently simmered till just done. Towards the end of the cooking time, fresh herbs are added to impart extra taste and aroma. As far as I know, there are 2 versions of asampedas. The Malay style is arguably more popular and can be found easily at Malay restaurants and road side stalls. The otherversion is the Nyonya style. Having tasted both, I would say that the difference lies in the type of herbs used. The base “rempah” is the same but the type of herbs used produce subtly distinctive differences. The Malay version uses Vietnamese mint (“daunkesum”) and Ginger Torch Flower (“bungakantan”) while the Nyonya version adds candlenut in the base and uses kaffir lime leaves. As to which version is tastier depends on your personal preference. To me, both are equally delicious and appetizing and second helpings are always guaranteed!
For those interested in cooking asampedas at home, here is a recipe, courtesy of Amy Beh, celebrity chef, which is taken from www.kuali.com.
You can also check out another recipe sourced online from http://rasamalaysia.com/recipe-assam-pedas-fish/
Assam PedasTenggiriBy Amy Beh
- 450g to 500g mackerel (ikantenggiri), cut into slices and seasoned to taste with salt and pepper
- 2 stalks lemon grass, smashed
- 2 sprigs polygonum (daunkesom)
- 1/2 tsp Maggi belacan granules
- l 1/2 cups tamarind juice
(A) Grind or pound finely:
- 12 to 15 red chillies
- 10 shallots
- 2 cloves garlic
- l.5cm fresh tumeric
- Salt and sugar to taste
- Dash of pepper
- 1 bungakantan, sliced thinly
Deep fry fish in hot oil until lightly brown. Remove fish and drain well. Leave two to three tablespoons of oil in the pan. Add lemon grass and ground ingredients. Fry until aromatic.
Add daunkesom and tamarind juice. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for five minutes. Add seasoning and fish.
Simmer until gravy is according to desired thickness. Scoop into a serving bowl and garnish.
Serve hot with rice.
The mere mention of sambalbelacan often evokes various gastronomic reactions in Malaysians. For those living overseas, especially in Western countries, sambalbelacan can trigger a flood of nostalgic memories. Memories of roasted fresh belacan wafting through the kitchen and the comforting sound of the rhythmic pounding of pestle and mortar. And of course, memories of the taste – a medley of fiery chillies tempered with subtle sweetness, a hint of lime zing and savoury saltiness.
Essentially, sambalbelacan is a condiment. Not meant to be the main star in a meal, it often plays a supporting role. However, in certain “star” dishes, the absence of the supporting dish will more often than not guarantee a dismal performance with connoisseurs openly lamenting “Oh, how nicer this would taste if we had sambalbelacan” or typically “No sambalbelacan, no kick lah!”
Among the many varieties of sambal available in our local cuisine, sambalbelacan has the simplest and fastest method of preparation. The basic recipe is simply fresh red chillies pounded with roasted belacan and flavoured with a pinch of sugar, salt and a squeeze of calamansilime (“limaunipis”). Over the years, different cultures have added personal touches to the basic recipe. So some varieties will have a touch of one of the following ingredients – finely shredded lime skin, julienned unripe mangoes, fermented durian (“tempoyak”) and the rare “buahbinjai”.
Whatever your choice, there is one thing everyone will agree on – the preparation of authentic sambalbelacan can only be with a traditional pestle and mortar and never with an electric blender or food processor. Electric gadgets do not achieve the desired consistency and texture which in turn affects the taste. Purists will surely turn their noses up at machine made mass produced sambalbelacan.
Sambalbelacan is best served with plain white rice as an accompaniment to main dishes such as fried fish, fried chicken, masaklemak, Nyonya pong teh and even Chinese dishes such as yam rice and pan mee. Home cooks can also attest that leftover sambal fried with overnight rice with shrimp and vegetables thrown in will create a wonderfully appetizing dish of fried rice, perfect for late night suppers or quick one dish meals.
Around the world, from Australia to USA to Europe and UK, Malaysians dining out in a Malaysian restaurant will always look for kangkongbelacan on the menu. Kangkong is a local vegetable and its English name is water convolvulus or water spinach. Previously, it was only available locally but with local ingredients now obtainable all over the world, it is possible to find this vegetable in Asian supermarkets and in restaurants.
Plain kangkong boiled or stir fried with just oil and garlic is delectable enough but stir fried with a sambal made up from ground shallots, garlic, chillies and belacan, it transforms into a lip smacking, mouth- watering dish best savoured with plain white rice. With a hint of fieriness from the chillies, saltiness from the belacan and subtle sweetness of the shallots, the crunchy hollow stems of the vegetable and its delicate leaves have never tasted better. This is a truly Malaysian dish as it is a firm favourite with all races.
Try pairing it with traditional home cooked dishes such as cincalokomelette. You can also substitute kangkung for other vegetables like okra or sweet potato leaves or better still, stir fry a combination of four angled beans (“kacangbotol”), okra, stink beans (“petai”) and long beans popularly known as the Four Kings Vegetables. Check out this website for a sample recipe and write-up. http://dad-baker.blogspot.com/2009/10/not-4-but-2-heavenly-kings-and-its-not.html
Happy cooking and Happy Eating!
Home2Stay Warisan Melaka thanks the owners of the above websites for the use of their images and recipes and hopes that readers will visit these websites for more information and mouth-watering pictures!