Throughout South East Asia, particularly Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore, regional recipes call for Belacan. Sold in little 2×4 bars they come encased in a sealed, heavy weight plastic package. The reason becomes obvious when the package is opened and the smell assaults your senses.
Belacan is fermented shrimp paste. It has the look and smell of something you’d scrape off the bottom of your shoe. However, it is an essential ingredient to the best south asian curries. It adds an omph of flavor that is indescribable, but distinguishes an OK curry from a OMG curry.
The key to using belacan is to roast before using.
I have a gas range in my Sing kitchen, so I have a special spoon to roast it over an open flame. The spoon is not special, it’s just an old stainless steel soup spoon sacrificed for this purpose. I make sure to open my windows and close the kitchen door before starting. Initially, the smell is powerful (or ‘powd-erful’ as Singaporeans say) but as it toasts the aroma transforms into a pleasant, charry, smokey barbeque fragrance.
There is a Thai version of shrimp paste which is not as strong. Unlike belacan, it can be used un-roasted. It also has a different, murky purple colour. I’ve started using the Thai version for my lighter curries.