Belacan is an essential South East Asian ingredient, no matter what ethnicity lives in the kitchen! Its earthy, salty I-am-umami character lends incredible flavour and depth to dishes.
Estimated reading time: 4 minutes
Table of contents
What is Belacan?
Belacan is a paste made with fermented dried shrimp. It is then dried further and sold in solid blocks or in paste form.
Called shrimp paste in English, it is an indispensable ingredient in the South East Asian kitchen. It is brimming with strong, umami notes, and even the slightest amount adds an amazing depth to a dish.
Belacan is naturally known by various other names in the region, and differs ever so slightly in make up. However, the various shrimp pastes in South East Asia can be used interchangeably. I do it all the time, and I am South East Asian, amongst other things!
Called kapi in Thai and terasi in Indonesian, if you didn’t grow up with it, you’re either going to love it or hate it!
The word belacan is in Malay, and like most Malay words, it is pronounced as it is spelled.
Buh – lah – chan (silent h in the first 2).
- bə (like the U in fur)
- lʌ (do re mi far so LA)
- chʌn (as above. In fact, belachan was the old spelling when I was in school)
How to use Belacan
Belacan is almost always roasted before being used. This deepens the flavour, aroma and adds a touch of caramel notes.
Shrimp paste is a very strong smelling ingredient. It really does rather stink to high heaven, especially when being roasted on its own before using.
So a word of advice if you’re not used to it, open the windows, and don’t do it before having guests over.
We use belacan in curries, soups, stir fries, sambals and salads – endless list! See examples right at the end.
Belacan and its cousin, udang kering (dried shrimp – post soon), are the main reason Malay and Indonesian “vegetarian” recipes are not really vegetarian, and most certainly, not vegan.
Even the most innocuous of dishes, will, at its heart, have a little of either or both, as a flavour base. Like our Sayur Lemak, or the Indonesian Sayur Lodeh.
Some years ago, I veganised the Sayur Lemak in a United Nations-led Climate Action campaign. You’ll find that recipe (below) on my other food blog, LinsFood.com.
Substitute for Shrimp Paste
The best substitute for shrimp paste is either dried shrimp or fish sauce. Neither will impart quite the same depth, but they will be adequate.
- Double the amount of dried shrimp for shrimp paste
- About 1 Tbsp of fish sauce for every 1/2 tsp of shrimp paste
Vegan Substitute for Belacan
This is easy – shiitake! They are my go-to umami ingredient for vegetarian cooking. And now that all my 4 kids have been vegetarian for about 3 years, you can imagine that’s very often!
Use a handful of shiitake in place of 1/2 tsp of belacan. Slice them or add them to the paste ingredients the recipe will inevitably call for.
And on that note, shall we go roast us some belacan? Don’t forget to open those windows! You’ll probably have to change your shirt too, after!
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Recipes using Shrimp Paste
How to use Belacan (Shrimp Paste)
- a small frying pan
- butter knife or spoon for scraping off
- belacan amount as your recipe calls for
- Place the belacan in a small frying pan on medium-low heat to roast.
- Flatten it as much as you can to get as much of the surface area roasted as possible; it will stick to the back of your spatula. Just scrape it off and add back to the pan.
- Turn the heat down to low and roast for about 5 minutes. Flip it over halfway. If it's in bits, as much as possible. You’ll start getting a really strong odour, and when you think you can’t take it anymore, it’s done!But seriously, if you’re not sure, give it 5 minutes, maybe even 10, if you have a bigger, thicker piece, keeping a close eye on it, take it off before it burns, when it looks nicely charred, and is a lighter brown than the uncooked paste.Whether your belacan stays in one piece and how long it needs depends a little on the type you bought – soft or hard.