Nasi Lemak Recipe (Part 1) - Sambal Belacan

Sambal Belacan recipe by

Southeast Asians have a thing for foods that give punch to the palate. Real punch that sometimes requires the use of ingredients that smell (stink) up the entire house, but result in the most heavenly dish when those smells and flavours blend and fuse together in a wok.

In Malaysia and Indonesia, that stinky culprit is almost always 'sambal belacan'.

Sambal is basically a chili based relish or cooking ingredient. But to limit it to a definition would not do it justice. There are endess varieties of sambal, with pounded chilis mixed with any combination of spices and flavours.

When fresh chili peppers are pounded together with shrimp paste (belacan), you get the base of sambal belacan, and the base of many Malaysian dishes.

sambal belacan ingredients
Fresh chilies, brown shrimp paste & a squeeze of lime juice  - basic ingredients to make sambal belacan relish

As you may have guessed, the pervasive smell comes not from fresh chilies, but from belacan, the shrimp paste made of fermented dried shrimp, anchovies and salt. But like many Southeast Asian ingredients, the smell is always accompanied with flavour. And in the case of belacan – a horrible smell equals a delicious flavour.

Whenever I make sambal belacan at home, Mark vanishes during the cooking process, but then magically reappears when dinner is ready.

how to pound sambal belacan with mortar and pestle
Version A (Cooking Ingredient) - Using mortar & pestle to pound non-toasted shrimp paste and chilies.
how to toast belachan
Version B (Relish) - Toasting belacan before pounding it together with chilies.

In Malaysia, we use sambal belacan as a cooking ingredient to fry up sambal kangkong (water spinach), sambal asparagus, sambal lady’s fingers (okra), sambal sotong (squid), sambal fish, and literally sambal belacan everything.

We also enjoy sambal belacan as a relish. Mix it with lime juice and sugar, and it becomes the perfect condiment for rice, noodles, prawn crackers, and Malaysia's iconic dish - Nasi Lemak. When tomatoes, shallots, garlic, palm sugar or some mashed up mangoes are thrown in, the sambal belacan transforms into our favorite dressing for Asian greens. Fresh salad with a punch - Southeast Asian style!

Sambal Belacan recipe by

Just a warning first before you cook up that belacan – turn the overhead fan on high, open your windows, and make sure your neighbours aren’t home. Don’t worry, the taste is worth it...

{For more delicious sambal recipes, hop over to our 'Can't live without Sambal' post}

Grandpa & Grandma's Nasi Lemak Recipe
Part 1 - Sambal Belacan  by Season with Spice

Version A - Sambal Belacan as a cooking ingredient
Makes about 1/4 cup

5 fresh red chilies - remove seeds if you like your sambal smoother and less spicy
1 1/2 tbsp belacan (shrimp paste)

The process:
1. Cut the chilies into smaller pieces, so they are easier to grind.
2. With a pestle, pound the chilies & non-toasted belacan together in a mortar, until ground fine.
3. That's it! You have sambal belacan ready for stir frying with many dishes. 

Version B - Sambal Belacan as a relish
Makes about 1/4 cup

5 fresh red chilies
1 1/2 tbsp shrimp paste belacan
1 calamansi lime (You can use another type of lime if you cannot find calamansi lime in your area) 

Optional ingredients (quantity - go with your personal preference):
sugar to taste
soy sauce to taste
finely minced garlic

The process:
1. Toast the shrimp paste in a frying pan or a wok on low heat until it dries out, turns powdery, and as my mom says, smells "fragrant". The dry frying should take about 3-4 minutes.
2. With a pestle, pound the chilies & toasted belacan together in a mortar, until ground fine. 
3. Add the optional ingredients and mix well. 
4. Squeeze in lime juice when you are ready to serve. 

1. Shrimp paste can only be consumed when it is fully cooked. That is why it has be toasted when you prepare it as a condiment.
2. Sambal belacan is best made with a mortar & pestle, but a food processor works fine too.
3. You may find salt being added in many sambal belacan recipes. However, Mom & I prefer to skip the additional salt since shrimp paste already contains a lot.
4. For more heat, toss in some chili padi (bird's eye chili), and for a more vibrant color, use a mix of green & red chilies.
5. When I asked my mom how long sambal belacan can keep, she said, "until you use it". That's equivalent to a few months in the refrigerator and much longer in the freezer.

Sambal belacan is the perfect condiment with classic Malaysia's nasi lemak (Part 4).  To enjoy nasi lemak as a spread, add dishes such as tamarind prawns (Part 2) and sambal ikan bilis (Part 3).