Spicy Malaysian Sambal Belacan
Spicy, sour and deliciously deep and complex, this Sambal Belacan condiment is sure to complete your meal. It brings the oomph to the dining table no matter the occasion – especially so during a hearty Malaysian meal. Just a little bit is needed to amp up the flavours.
“Sambal” refers to a paste primarily made from chilli, mixed in with other herbs and aromatics such as garlic, shallots, lime juice, salt. “Belacan” refers to a fermented paste made from small shrimp. Together, “Sambal Belacan” translates to “Shrimp Paste Chilli Dip” and it is every bit delicious as it sounds.
Although it is traditionally enjoyed with fried fish or meats, fresh vegetables and white rice as the main condiment, Sambal Belacan can also be served alongside foods with subtle seasonings like omelettes, fried rice (yum!), steamed fish and stir-fried vegetables. Be careful when pairing with curries and other strong-tasting foods, however, as their flavour personalities can clash.
Malaysian Sambal Belacan Recipe
The ingredients’ amounts and types revolve a lot around personal taste, which aligns very much with the “agak-agak” (estimation) method that Malaysian home-cooks use. Although the amounts are in black and white, don’t be afraid to experiment and adjust until you come to the taste of Sambal Belacan that you enjoy. 🙂
Chillies and shrimp paste are the main stars of this recipe. Fresh chillies are preferred for their fragrance and flavour. However, when in a pinch, dried chillies can work as well. Be sure to soak and plump them up a little before starting.
In terms of the type of chillies, I’ve used 10 of the red birds’ eye chillies, aka “cili padi“. They may look small and cute, but they are SUPERHOT. Using 10 gives the maximum spiciness in the sambal, so only a teaspoonful per meal is enough. However, the number can be reduced if a less spicer sambal version is preferred.
The larger red chilli used is not as spicy and more akin to a vegetable. It provides the fragrance, “flesh” and bright red colour in our sambal without increasing the spiciness level. However, do note that some harmless-looking chillies can turn out to be super spicy due to environmental factors, where they came from, or even due to the difference in sub-species. If possible, try tasting the tip of the chilli and adjust the number used.
For shrimp paste, I prefer to use the ones from Thailand as it is what I’ve grown up with. It does not have a very strong fragrance and taste, so I have opted to use more. The amount can be increased and reduced depending on the shrimp paste as well as preference.
Other ingredients include garlic, lime juice, fish sauce and paste sugar. Fish sauce adds more umami-ness and saltiness, while paste sugar thickens the Sambal Belacan and mellows the spiciness. They can both be substituted with salt and white sugar if unavailable.
Toasting the Ingredients
Pre-heat a stainless steel pan over medium heat. Do not use non-stick pans for this as the heat will spoil the non-stick coating.
Flatten the belacan until it resembles a thin disk. The thinner it is, the faster it will toast. I used food-grade gloves to prevent my hands from Then, skewer the red bird’s eye chillies and garlic separately.
Place the belacan, chillies and garlic onto the pan to dry roast them for 10 minutes. Make sure to flip the birds’ eye chillies and garlic often as they tend to cook really fast.
After about 5 minutes, the belacan is releasing its aromas. Flip the belacan and the red chillies. If any part of the chillies is burned, do not worry. This will deepen the smokey flavour of the sambal belacan later.
After 10 minutes, all the ingredients are well-roasted and cooked. Switch off the heat and remove them from the pan. Allow the pan to cool completely on its own before washing. This can take about 2-3 hours. This is because the pan is very hot right now – introducing water will surely affect its structure and sturdiness, which may cause the pan to warp its shape.
Making Sambal Belacan
Now that the ingredients are well-toasted, I will use a traditional mortar and pestle to mix the sambal belacan all together. A blender can be used as well – although the texture and taste may not be as strong as using a pestle and mortar, it will still be plenty spicy and delicious.
Place a towel or a thick cloth underneath the mortar to protect your kitchen counter. Pound the toasted belacan for about 1 minute, or until it resembles a fine paste.
Then, remove the chillies and garlic from the skewers. Separate and discard the stalks from the red birds’ eye chillies. Cut the larger red chillies into smaller pieces to fit the mortar.
Add the garlic and both the chillies with the belacan and pound all of them together for about 2 minutes, or until a homogenous, fine paste is formed. Make sure to scrape the sides of the mortar as the paste can climb up and get stuck there too.
Now we will add in the other ingredients. At this stage, we are no longer pounding the sambal belacan as it can easily splash out from the mortar. This is because the mixture is quite wet and vicious.
Add in the paste sugar, 1 tbsp of lime juice and 1/2 tbsp of fish sauce. Gently press the pestle on the base of the mortar to mix the sambal belacan and the rest of the ingredients together. Alternatively, a spoon can be used in a stirring motion as well.
After the mixture is well-mixed, take a little bit to taste. We are checking for spiciness, as well as the balance of saltiness, sweetness and sourness. For my sambal belacan, the spiciness and sweetness were good, however, it lacked sourness, so I added an extra 1 tbsp of lime juice.
If you find it to be too spicy, add more sugar as sweetness mellows out the heat intensity. If it is too sweet, balance it by adding either more fish sauce (for saltiness) or lime juice (for sourness).
Mix the additional seasonings until homogenous and give another taste. When the sambal belacan is satisfactory, transfer to a serving saucer, or clean, dry airtight container.
How to Enjoy
I love my sambal belacan with lots and lots of fresh vegetables, or “ulam“, fried fish and white rice. It is especially delicious with crunchy vegetables like long beans and cucumbers and goes well with strong-flavoured leaves like mint.
It can also be used as a spicy condiment; just a little bit goes a long way. Beautifully paired with omelettes, fried meats and even thick savoury sauces like Black Chicken Sauce.
I recommend storing Sambal Belacan in its own designated container as it tends to “stain” them with its own fragrance. Airtight glass jars work best in the fridge for up to 2 weeks. It’s not recommended to freeze as the ice crystals that form tends to alter the Sambal Belacan’s texture after thawing.
If you find your fridge developing an aroma after storing them, place a small container of charcoal in the corner somewhere; it will absorb the unwanted aroma. Alternatively, the Sambal Belacan can be double sealed to lock in its aroma as well.
Hope you have enjoyed this recipe 😀
Spicy Sambal Belacan Recipe
- Frying Pan
- Pestle and Mortar
- Food Tongs
- Food Skewers
- 10 pieces red bird’s eye chilli, cili padi
- 2 red chilli
- 2 tbsp lime juice
- 4 cloves garlic, peeled, washed
- 2 tbsp paste sugar, substitute: granulated sugar
- 1/2 tbsp fish sauce
- 65 g shrimp paste, belacan
- Flatten belacan/ shrimp paste. Skewer chillies and garlic. Roast belacan, garlic, red chilli and bird's eye chilli on a stainless steel pan over medium heat for 10 minutes. Flip chilli and garlic often. Flip belacan after 5 minutes.
- Pound the belacan in a mortar for 1 minute, or until fine. Remove the stems and skewers from the chillies and garlic. Add the garlic, and chillies into the mortar and pound for 2 minutes, or until fine and well-mixed, scraping the sides often.
- Add paste sugar, 1 tbsp of lime juice, and 1/2 tbsp of fish sauce to the mortar. Lightly press, not pound, the pestle into the mortar to mix all the ingredients until incorporated.
- Adjust to taste.
- Serve with raw vegetables or any non-spicy dish.
- Toasting beforehand introduces a lovely, smoked flavour. It can also be kept for a longer time as the ingredients are cooked. However, this step can be skipped for one-time consumed sambal belacan.
- Allow the stainless steel pan to cool completely before washing, to preserve its quality and shape.
- Place a thick cloth or hand towel beneath the mortar before pounding for shock absorbance.
- Sugar, lime juice and fish sauce are added in smaller amounts to better control the balance of the sweetness, sourness, saltiness and spiciness. During the adjustment, the rest of the lime juice was added as it was not sour enough for me.
- When mixing the ingredients, a spoon can be used as well. Pounding should be avoided as the liquids can splatter and make a mess.
- If the sambal belacan is too spicy, more sugar can be added to mellow it.
- Generally enjoyed with ulam (raw vegetables), fried meat/ fish, and white rice.
- Omelette dishes
- Black Sauce Chicken
- Store the excess in a clean, air-tight glass container. It can last up to 2 weeks in the fridge.
- Not recommended to freeze.