One of the smells I was never far from in my childhood was that of fermented shrimp. I suppose its strong and somewhat pungent smell may be displeasing or even offensive to many who have not grown up with it. It is a smell that is in fact common in the preparation of much of the cuisine of South East Asia, manifesting itself in a compressed dried form of belacan (or similar), or as a sauce or paste such as in fish sauce that is common in Indochina or hae ko from Penang, or as a condiment such as in cincalok which has its origins from the geragok (or krill) fishermen of Malacca (relatively darker skinned descendants of Portuguese who intermarried with the local population and who are often referred to as “Geragok“). It is for me, a smell that I take delight in, as it accompanies the preparation of some of my favourite dishes. In the form of belacan, which has somehow been likened to cheese, it is found on the shelves of the sundry shop or supermarket, in a block of a flat circular or a rectangular section. It is used widely in the preparation of many dishes in Singapore and Malaysia, and as an ingredient in sambal belacan which I somehow can’t do without (I always kept a bottle in my locker with me during my National Service days to make the cookhouse food a lot more palatable).
While to many of us who live in this part of the world do enjoy the rich strong flavour that belacan or other forms of fermented shrimp imparts on the food that we eat, some would probably not want to see how the various forms are prepared, let alone try a hand at the preparation. But my maternal grandmother did attempt to do just that, pitting herself against the sealed jars of fermenting rice and krill that was meant to become cincalok, and after that experience, decided it was a lot more convenient to buy it off the shelf. That attempt was marked by an almighty boom from the kitchen one evening, where a few sealed jars of brine, rice and krill had stood in a late stage of fermentation. Rushing into the kitchen, she was to discover that one of the jars that held the concoction had blown its top, seeming forcefully dispensing its foul smelling contents over the walls and ceiling, and whatever had stood in the path of the eruption. Cleaning up somehow didn’t seem as bad as having to bear with the smell that seemed to linger on for an eternity.
The making of belacan itself is probably something that won’t win over any fans to it as well. This is something that we in Singapore probably don’t have much of a chance to see anymore. There are however, many of the coastal fishing villages of the Peninsula where you will be greeted not just by the sight of belacan laid on sheets on the ground being dried in the sun, but also by the unmistakeable smell of fermenting shrimp paste. The process of making belacan dictates that the shrimp is salted upon their arrival ashore and partially dried in the sun before being pounded and the slightly moist mash is placed in a sealed container for about a week for fermentation. The fermented pasty mix is then dried, following which it is mashed and stored for a few more days before being compressed into cakes, which can then be packed and transported to the supermarket shelves. The quality and texture of belacan can vary depending on the moisture content and the length of fermentation. A longer fermentation results in a more aromatic (as I would see it) block of belacan and the strongest smelling ones often have a richer taste. While it isn’t quite a breath of fresh air, breathing in the smell of fermented shrimp somehow does wonders to my day.
Since, I have introduced Kuala Gula, I should maybe add a few words and images of Kuala Gula. Kuala Gula is located in an area of Perak not far from to the land border with the state of Penang in what is the large Matang mangrove forest. The area is fairly isolated and the mangrove forest and mud flats attract a multitude of birds including the endangered Milky Stork. The area is also devoted to a bird sanctuary, the Kuala Gula Bird Sanctuary and a Water Bird Conservation Centre which runs a Milky Stork Rehabilitation Programme. Besides the bird sanctuary, the area also has two fishing villages, the smaller Kuala Gula, in which most of the villagers are involved in prawn and shrimp fishing and in the processing of prawns and shrimp into belacan and dried shrimp. The main industry of larger village, Kuala Kurau, as the name suggests, is in fishing and in processing salted fish. More information on the area can be obtained from the Tourism Malaysia website.