A visit to a charcoal factory

23 06 2016

The business of charcoal making, which in the region makes use of wood from the abundant mangrove forests, has long ceased in Singapore. The last factory, on the evidence of a 1972 Straits Times article, was possibly on Pulau Tekong and it only is in some of our neighbouring countries that the production of what some may consider to be black gold can be found.

The charcoal factory at Kuala Sepetang.

The charcoal factory at Kuala Sepetang.

One production centre that I had the opportunity to visit is the factory at Kuala Sepetang, located along the northern Perak coastline, just 15 kilometres from the charming old mining town of Taiping. The factory, operated by a Mr. Chuah Chow Aun, has a reputation for the best charcoal in Asia and does a thriving trade in meeting the demand from the large Japanese market.

Charcoal kilns, the contruction knowhow of which interestingly, was brought in by the Japanese during the war.

Charcoal kilns, the contruction knowhow of which interestingly, was brought in by the Japanese during the war. The logs with barks stripped from them, are ready for the kilns.

The factory is well worth a visit just for the setting it finds itself in. Its long zinc roofed wooden sheds against which stacks of bakau wood logs are arranged, against the backdrop of the beautiful Matang mangrove forest on the banks of the Sungai Kapal Changkol, makes the scene it presents one that somehow looks like one that could well belong in a good old Western movie.

Another view of the factory. Logs are stripped of their barks in the area where they are unloaded from boats that bring them in from the nearby mangrove forest.

Another view of the factory. Logs are stripped of their barks in the area where they are unloaded from boats that bring them in from the nearby mangrove forest.

The sheds are where the main process of turning the wood is carried out. In them one finds rows of smoking kilns, in which the wood is heated and not, as is popularly believed, burnt, with the aim of removing water – which makes up the bulk of its weight when harvested, from the logs. It is a long, tedious and rather labour intensive process that is employed, which starts with the unloading of logs harvested primarily from 30 year old bakau minyak (Rhizophora apiculata) trees for which a sapling is planted for every tree that is harvested. The logs, which measure up to 5 inches in diameter, are prepared for the kilns by stripping their barks before they are stacked against the kilns before being moved in.

Logs of various diameters.

Logs of various diameters.

I was rather surprised to hear that it was in fact the Japanese that brought in the charcoal making techniques that are employed at Kuala Sepetang during the occupation. This process, involves the heating of the kilns – in which logs are positioned vertically on blocks of clay to keep them off the ground before the opening is reduced sufficiently in size to serve as a firing box, for a period of about 10 days. At this stage the temperature within the kilns is raised about 85° C. After this comes a second stage of heating for which the opening is reduced further, for another 12 days during which temperatures are raised to about  220° C. The kiln is left to cool for another week or so before the cured wood can be taken out.

A kiln opening, through which logs are moved into the kiln.

A kiln opening, through which logs are moved into the kiln.

Logs are arranged vertically on clay blocks.

An example of how logs are vertically arranged and the clay blocks on which they are made to stand on.

The first stage during with a larger opening is maintained at the firing box.

The first stage during with a larger opening is maintained at the firing box.

Experience plays an important part in the process and is monitored only through observation of the vapour that billows out of an opening in the kiln. From 1500 logs or about 40 to 50 tonnes of wood that is placed in the kilns before the start of firing, only 10 tonnes of is left as charcoal – the rest of the weight having been expelled as vapour. The vapour however does not go to waste and is in its condensed form, sold as mangrove wood vinegar, which is said to repel mosquitoes and cure common skin problems.

The opening is reduced during the second stage.

The opening is reduced during the second stage.

A kiln in use.

A kiln in use.

The factory, Khay Hor Holdings Sdn. Bhd. or more commonly referred to as the Kuala Sepetang Charcoal Factory, is open for visits. Arrangements can be made for guided tours by contacting Mr. Chuah at +60 12 5739563. More information is available at the Kuala Sepetang Charcoal Factory Facebook Page and at this link: The Charcoal Factory.

Vapour coming out of a kiln - the vapour, which is used to monitor the process , is collected and sold in its condense form as mangrove wood vinegar.

Vapour coming out of a kiln – the vapour, which is used to monitor the process , is collected and sold in its condense form as mangrove wood vinegar.

The entrance to the factory.

The entrance to the factory.

 

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The good food guide: the Garmin-Asus Navigation Smart Phone

11 01 2011

This review of the use of a Garmin-Asus A10 Navigation Smartphone has been written in conjunction with a Garmin-Asus blogger voting contest. You can help me win a Garmin-Asus A15 Navigation Smartphone by voting for me at this page for this post can be found at this page (click on this link). Voters will receive a S$50 Garmin-Asus voucher from Starhub. More information on the two phones can be found at this link. Voting ends on 21 Feb 2011.


Armed with this wonderful little gadget which I got to use for a couple of weeks, the usage of which coincided with a recent trip I made across the Causeway, I decided to try to make the most of it. On my previous drives to Malaysia, even with a few month under the belt working in one of the northern states which provided me with the freedom to roam around the remaining states of Peninsula Malaysia that I had hitherto not set foot on, and trips on an annual basis (since my father took me on the long and winding drives along the old trunk road in the 1970s) – save for breaks when I was away from this part of the world, I had not really dared to venture much, particularly in some of the bigger towns and cities. This reluctance to venture I guess stems from my father’s own experience trying to make sense of the evolving Jalan Sehala (One-Way Street) system in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur, where all roads seem to have led to the roundabout known as Edinburgh Circle, and it was only after many attempts each time, that we would find ourselves on Jalan Bukit Bintang, off which we would usually look for accommodation. This time around, with a handy little Android phone, the Garmin Asus A10, which was equipped with a Garmin GPS, I could, I thought to myself, overcome this reluctance and be a little brave in looking for some places I would otherwise get lost going to.

The Garmin-Asus A10 Android GPS Phone.

On the road to Kuala Lumpur ... a perfect excuse to try a GPS enabled Android phone out ...

The first GPS adventure started with a drive from Kuala Lumpur to the Lost World of Tambun, close to the city of Ipoh. In attempting to drive, forgetting that the exit system off the North-South Highway around Ipoh had changed since I last visited, I somehow missed a turning off the highway, and ended incurring an additional hour of grumbling from the backseat, having to drive up the mountains to Kuala Kangsar, before having to turn back. It was then that I decided to call on the GPS, which I should really have done earlier, and with the GPS promptly finding where I was, I was directed with accurate voice instructions (albeit with pronunciations that may take a little getting used to) to the Lost World that had indeed been lost to me (the Lost World of Tambun is a water themed park, run by the Sunway group, probably built around some of the mining pools that are found around Ipoh and is worth a visit for the hot spring water that is piped up into pools and even a jacuzzi). One of the features of the A10’s GPS is the junction view which provides a visual on the screen of the junction you are asked to turn off at, making it easily recognisable.

The Garmin-Asus A10 proved to be an able navigator.

Getting lost looking for a Lost World (of Tambun) - I should have relied on the GPS rather than follow my instincts.

Having discovered how useful the GPS could be I decided to abandon my instincts and rely totally on the GPS for the next part of the journey into Ipoh, and the GPS guided me, without hiccups to my destination, a hotel along Jalan Raja Dr Nazrin Shah, an area that I wasn’t familiar with. Emboldened, I decided to drive next into the old town for dinner (not that Ipoh is difficult to find one’s way around), first looking up and then setting places to eat in Ipoh that had been recommended to me by a friend who was a long time resident … I was begining to have fun with the gadget. Mmm … first up was the street where the two famous chicken rice and bean sprout restaurants were …

The GPS proved an able navigator in my search for good food starting with Chicken Rice and Bean Sprouts in Ipoh.

Ipoh is well known for its steamed chicken ... which I easily navigated to with the help of the A10 ...

and ... crunchy bean sprouts ...

I guess finding my way to an area that I was more or less familiar with from my previous gluttonous excursions into Ipoh for food wasn’t going to be difficult, but I was impressed with the efficiency in which the GPS got me there! Yes, this was indeed going to be fun, and I was determined to make the most out of the GPS, and waking up early the very next morning, I set off on two quests. One was to find my way to the architectural masterpiece in the form of the Ipoh Railway Station that a turn of the 20th Century architect, Arthur Benison Hubback had left, together with the Ipoh Town Hall, the other was to find my way to some of what I was told was the best food in town. At the same time, I thought of trying the A10’s pedestrian-friendly navigation features on my walk around old Ipoh – not that it was difficult to do that, but I also needed to find my way to the eventual reward of the smoothest “Sar Hor Fun” that I have tasted at 75 Leech Street as well and the A10 again got me there without much of a fuss.

The A10 proved to be an able navigator in my search for A. B. Hubback's masterpiece, the Ipoh Town Hall and my wanderings around the streets of old Ipoh.

The very satisfying bowl of "Sar Hor Fun" that the A10 led me to.

After the Sar Hor Fun, the next thing to look forward to was the Dim Sum … and again with the help of the A10, I was able to find and set the destination from the hotel and find Dim Sum Street or Jalan Leong Sin Nam with ease. It is on this street that some of the best Dim Sum can be found and I found the restaurant that I was recommended, Ming Court, without fuss … where some of the best Dim Sum I’ve tasted was soon piled on the table.

Ming Court (as with Foh San) offers tasty treats of dim sum in Ipoh, and I found it with ease using the A10.

I found myself back in Kuala Lumpur, a two hour drive south to welcome in the new year, and not satisfied with my food adventures around Ipoh when there was this little place called Uma in some obscure corner of Kota Damansara which I heard served some of the best Balinese cuisine in the Klang Valley that I wanted to find. So the very next evening, out pops the A10, in goes the destination, into the car I go, and once again without fuss I arrived at this quiet restaurant (which I would talk about in another post) … and was treated to a really sumptuous meal of Nasi Ratus ….and a glass of the Indonesian version of Bandung, made with a (happy) tang by adding soda water, called Soda Gembira!

A soda to make one happy, Soda Gembira, the Indonesian version of Bandung (rose syrup and milk) with soda water.

The Kambing Mekuah (Balinese Lamb Curry) Nasi Ratus, served with yellow rice, which I had at Uma.

That was really the icing on the cake, and I guess it may be fortunate that I do not have the A10 on a permanent basis (or have the opportunity arriving back only in the first week of January to try the A50 out) … the ease with which I found all that great food in Ipoh and Kuala Lumpur, might mean I would be doing the same in Singapore and it won’t be long before I have to look into changing my wardrobe … or maybe you could help corce me into a new set of clothes … by voting for me so that I can win a Garmin ASUS A50 phone. More information on the two phones can be found at this link.





A quick taste of Ipoh

5 01 2011

No, this isn’t a blog about food. It is about the many experiences that I have in life, one of which involve some of the sinful (and mostly not sinful) pleasures of life, which includes food! Fresh from a date with a concubine on New Year’s Eve, and with the knowledge (yes, knowledge can sometimes be dangerous) that there is certainly more to Ipoh than rather nice old buildings and narrow streets – Ipoh is to many, better known for its food, I decided to indulge a little in some of the culinary treats that Ipoh offers.

Ipoh is well known as a glutton's paradise. Among its famous dishes is Sar Hor Fun found at stalls at either 73 or 75 Leech Street (Jalan Bandar Timah).

So, armed with the recommendations of a long time Ipoh resident whom I had met in Singapore, but with a little more than a day and the desire not to put additional strain on my tight fitting garments caused by the fast expanding waistline stemming from the overindulgences over the festive season, I decided to have a quick sampling what he had recommended. First stop was at one of the must-eat-at steamed chicken places, Onn Kee (安記) diagonally across on Jalan Yau Tet Shin from an old Ipoh favourite Lou Wong (老黄) (Onn Kee or Ong Kee as it is sometimes spelt also has a restaurant next door to Lou Wong).

The crowd at Lou Wong on Jalan Yau Tet Shin - popular with the locals for its chicken and bean sprouts.

Ong Kee (of Onn Kee) offers an alternative.

I arrived at about 7 in the evening, and a healthy crowd had already occupied the tables laid outside the restaurant (the crowd across at Lou Wong was even larger!). Ordering the standard fare, it promptly was served with what seemed like the standard practice in Ipoh, a generous amount of brown liquid which qualifies as sauce. Having made a pit stop at Lou Wong previously when I found the chicken to be smooth and tender, with maybe too generous a dash of sodium chloride in the sauce, I decided to take the recommendation of my friend to make a comparison. Onn Kee’s chicken as I bit into it felt a bit too tough and chewy and certainly not the tender smooth variety of steamed chicken I am used to in Singapore. The plus point, compared to Lou Wong’s was that it did taste a little less salty, and maybe had a richer taste. Where Onn Kee stands out is probably with its bean sprouts (known locally as “nga choy” in Cantonese or “tauge” – pronounced tow-gay in Malay) which was crunchier and tastier than its rival’s from across the street.

Ipoh is well known for its steamed chicken ... (the one from Onn Kee is shown here) ...

and ... which begs to be accompanied by crunchy bean sprouts ...

The chicken crew at Onn Kee ...

Of course we know that there is more to life, or rather food, in Ipoh than chicken and bean sprouts, and the Sar Hor Fun that I have previously mentioned. Ipoh has also a reptutation of having the best Dim Sum (not the variety with the word “Dollies” appended to it that MRT commuters in Singapore had a serving of very recently), on the Malayan Peninsula. Another long time favourite (when it comes to these bite sized treats in Ipoh) is the Foh San (富山) which is now housed in the mother of all dim sum restaurants along a street that has become so much associated with dim sum that it is know locally as “Dim Sum Kai” or Dim Sum Street, Jalan Leong Sin Nam. On the recommendation of my Ipoh insider, I headed instead across the street to Ming Court (明阁), where true to the reputation my friend had staked on his recommendation, dish after dish of some of the best dim sum I have had was served, washed down with a pot of tea. Of course I can’t say if it was the best, especially not having the opportunity to taste what Foh San has to offer.

Ming Court (as with Foh San) offers tasty treats of dim sum in Ipoh.

The aftermath ...

Walking around Ipoh does in fact give a sense of it being a glutton’s paradise. Another favourite among many Malaysians are its biscuit shops and salt baked chicken (chicken baked in rock salt). There is also an interesting concept which I guess comes from the fondness the locals have for eating chicken curry with bread and with sweet bread, to be found – Chicken in a Bun! Chicken curry wrapped in aluminium foil, in this case is baked in a sweet dough, allowing the finished product to be taken away and eaten almost anywhere, without the need for additional packaging. All that was certainly too much to handle in a matter of 24 hours – so I did the next best thing … take all that away to allow me to continue with my culinary exploration of Ipoh at my next destination, Kuala Lumpur.

Food - including biscuit shops are everywhere in Ipoh!

(Curry) Chicken in a bun another of Ipoh's famed delights.

What's inside the bun.

Another is Salt Baked Chicken - chicken baked slowly with rock salt - shops are found all over Central Ipoh





New Year’s Eve with a Concubine: a stroll around the streets of Old Ipoh

3 01 2011

One of the wonderful things about wandering around old towns in Malaysia is their ability to delight you with a few surprises from time to time. One such town (or city as it is now) is Ipoh, which I have passed through many times over the years without paying much attention to, which I had decided to spend a night at recently, motivated primarily by the desire to pay a visit to the grand old Railway Station building given to the city by one of the architects that Kuala Lumpur owes its rich architectural heritage to, with the bonus of the promise of the sumptuous treats that awaits the visitor to the city.

Motivated by the desire to have a look at the magnificent piece of railway architecture designed by A. B. Hubback, I decided to spend a bit more time in Ipoh than I normally would have thought of spending.

Ipoh had always been a town that I had not paid much attention to, often serving as a mere stopover on journeys to the north and the west of the town. It is a town that I have always associated with the tin mines that brought the town much of its status and wealth in the days gone by, one characterised by the many grand old buildings in the old town and the large bungalows along the approach into town that greet the visitor. My first ever visits there had been on an ambitious road trip my father took the family on in the early 1970s, when we had stopped first to pay a visit to the parents of his Brother-in-law who lived in Canning Garden on the way from Cameron Highlands to Penang, which I remember very little of except for sweltering in the mid day heat. We did also stop on the return trip – an unscheduled stop forced upon us by the temperature that I was running, to consult with a doctor and get some rest to recover before setting off for Kuala Lumpur.

Ipoh is named after the Ipoh, Epu or Upas Tree which was apparently abundant in and around Ipoh. This Ipoh Tree stands in the Town Square just in front of the Railway Station.

There were two other visits that I had made during my youth, both en route to Pulau Pangkor. One was notable more for the return coach journey on the Mara Express on which left passengers in a state that wasn’t far from a homonym of Mara in Malay. The other was when we had actually spent a few days – once again at Canning Garden where we stayed with the parents of a colleague of my mothers. That trip I remember most for being bored, mah-jong being the source of adult entertainment, thus leaving my sister and myself, the only juveniles stuck within the confines of the four walls and looking forward to the forays made into town for meals for which I remember the crunchy bean sprouts most and perhaps the sight of the old Cold Storage Supermarket which somehow caught my attention. It wasn’t some 25 years after that, at the beginning of 2008 when I had a short stint in Penang, that I visited Ipoh again, once again for a short stopover driven by curiosity of a place I had only vague memories of. On that and a subsequent stopover I made at the end of 2009, there wasn’t really much to change my impression of the town, which is in fact the administrative and commercial capital of the state of Perak, based on its reputation as being not much more than a sleepy hollow.

Ipoh, set against the backdrop of limestone hills has a reputation of being a sleepy hollow.

This time around, equipped with a little more time than I had given myself on my other recent visits, I was able to see a part of Ipoh that had previously escaped me. I was indeed surprised by its architectural heritage around a part of Ipoh that I had not previously known – seeing only in photographs the magnificent Railway Station and the beautiful building that is home to the sister institution to my own alma mater, St. Michael’s Institution.

Ipoh has some architectural masterpieces including St. Michael's Institution which was built over a period of 30 years from 1922, which is a sister institution to my alma mater in Singapore, St. Joseph's Institution.

After a early morning exploration of the beautiful Railway Station of which I would devote another post to, I was able to take a stroll around another of Arthur Benison Hubback’s masterpieces – the Town Hall, which has sadly fallen into a state of disrepair – although signs of restoration work around the rear of the building which was once the Post Office were evident. The Town Hall was built by the Public Works Department (as were the Government Buildings of that time) as part of an effort to provide Ipoh with public buildings that were “worthy of the town” in the early part of the 20th Century, the same effort which provided the Railway Station and the Town Square that separates the two magnificent edifices which were meant to provide, as the town planners had put, “a fine entry into the town“. Construction on the Town Hall and Post Office commenced in 1914 and after a delay due to the late arrival of materials from England, the building was completed in 1916. The Post Office moved in early 1917.

Ipoh Town Hall, which also housed the Post Office at the back of the building, was another building designed by A. B. Hubback.

A view of one of the wings of the Neo Classical styled Town Hall.

Inside the Town Hall.

Some of the other notable buildings in the vicinity that I was able to see on my stroll around the area just behind the Town Hall, bounded by Jalan Panglima Bukit Gantang Wahab (Club Road), Jalan Dewan (Post Office Road), Jalan Sultan Yussuf (Belfield Road), and the Padang are the High Court, built in Neo-Classical style and completed in 1928; the Straits Trading Building (now occupied by OCBC) built in 1907 in the Italian Renaissance style; the Chartered Bank Building built in 1924; the Art Deco styled Mercantile Bank (1931); the Perak Hydro Building (1930s) which housed the Perak River Hydro-Electric Power Company which supplied power to the tin mines around Ipoh; the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank Building (1931), built in the Neo Renaissance style and was for a long time the tallest building in Ipoh until the post-independence era; and the building that housed the FMS Bar and Restaurant from 1923 – reputed to be the oldest restaurant in Malaysia which was started by a Hainanese immigrant and catered exclusively to European Miners and Plantation Owners. Along Jalan Tun Sambanthan (Hale Street) by the Padang, there is also a row of terrace town houses worth a look at which once was occupied by the practices and residences of legal professionals.

The High Court building is another notable building in Ipoh, just across from the Town Hall.

Another view of the High Court.

The Straits Trading Building (1907).

The Chartered Bank Building (1924).

The Mercantile Bank Building (1931).

The Perak Hydro Building (1930s).

The Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank Building (1931) which for a long time was the highest building in Ipoh.

The building that housed the FMS Bar and Restaurant, reputedly the oldest restaurant in Malaysia.

Across Jalan Tun Sambanthan from the Padang, are a row of pre-war town houses which housed the offices and residences of legal professionals.

So what does all this have to do with the concubine in the title of this post you may ask? Well, the stroll did certainly help in working up an appetite and in deciding to head to nearby Leech Street or what is now Jalan Bandar Timah where I was given to understand had some of the best “Sar Hor Fun” – flat rice noodles (commonly referred to as Kway Teow in our part of the world) of which Ipoh has reputedly the best (in terms of it being silky smooth), served with shredded steamed chicken and prawns in a clear chicken broth, in town, I stumbled upon another of the delightful surprises Ipoh held in store for me: Panglima Lane. Panglima Lane or Lorong Panglima is a narrow alleyway lined with two rows of two-storey pre-war houses that date back to the turn of the 20th Century. The lane had apparently been a hotbed of vice activity, home to gambling, prostitution and opium dens, which later became a residential area from which it got its name “Second Concubine Lane” being one of three streets where the Chinese wealthy had housed their concubines. Today, what greets the visitor are the crumbling and closely spaced units, some still occupied, and others, structurally unsound, lying abandoned. Signs of life are still very much in evidence around the occupied units – a well known restaurant occupies one of the units close to the main road beyond which the sight of laundry poles overhead, potted plants, opened doors and bicycles and tricycles greet the eye, along with evidence of the units that are slowly but surely falling apart. There are apparently plans to conserve and redevelop the houses along the lane, which I guess is something to look forward to, and something that has to be done before it all crumbles away.

A delightful find off Jalan Bandar Timah (Leech Street) is Lorong Panglima, a narrow street which is also known as "Concubine Lane".

Two rows of houses dating from the turn of the 20th Century line both sides of Concubine Lane, some showing signs of age and neglect. The lane was once a hotbed of vice activity and later became a residential area where rich Chinese men kept mistresses or concubines.

Another view of Concubine Lane. Some units still serve as residences, while some have been abandoned and left to crumble.

A tricycle outside a house in Concubine Lane.

More signs of life.

Windows on Concubine Lane.

A peek into one of the abandoned units on Concubine Lane.

As an added treat, I had my bowl of “Sar Hor Fun” in a coffee shop on the ground floor of a building on Leech Street that was built in the 1920s, as a hostel for performers at a Chinese Opera theatre that was just next door to it (since demolished). It was really a toss-up between the “Sar Hor Fun” stall next door at No. 73 which seemed more popular, and the one at No. 75 (Kong Heng Coffee Shop) where the so-called Dramatists’ Hostel was housed. I went for the one at No. 75 perhaps for the history of the building and wasn’t disappointed. The bowl of silky smooth noodles in the tasty chicken broth (which didn’t at all feel like it had been flavoured with MSG) was one of the best I have tasted. What struck me sitting in the coffee shop was that besides the bowl of noodles, people were also eating satay – which came from a well-known stall at neighbouring No. 73 – satay where I come from is usually only eaten only in the evenings. With the bowl of noodles finished, there was only one thing left to do … that was to sip on the steaming hot cup of Ipoh White Coffee, before heading back to the hotel for a rest.

The former "Dramatists' Hostel" along Leech Street once was home to performers of the Chinese Opera Theatre that stood next door (since demolished).

The ground floor of the former "Dramatists' Hostel" now houses the Kedai Kopi Kong Heng, at which I had a piping hot bowl of the well known Ipoh Sar Hor Fun.

A view from the window of the coffee shop.

The very satisfying bowl of "Sar Hor Fun" that I had.

The Sar Hor Fun stall at Kong Heng.





Aromatherapy and storks on the shores of northern Perak

2 07 2010

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).

Fishing villages on the coast of Peninsula Malaysia offer a sniff into the making of various forms of shrimp paste.

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.

Not an uncommon sight in a fishing village such as this one in northern Perak, Kuala Gula, fermented shrimp paste being dried in the sun.

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.

A close up of the fermented paste that would be eventually compressed into the blocks that we know of as belacan.

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.

Much of life in Kuala Gula revolves around prawn and shrimp fishing and processing.

Besides belacan, dried shrimp is also processed in Kuala Gula, the pre-processing of which is seen in this photograph.

Kuala Gula is a fishing community in a remote part of northern Perak.

Another view of Kuala Gula.

Kuala Gula is also well known for its bird sanctuary and the Milky Stork conservation programme.

A milky stork undergoing rehabilitation.

A crested serpent eagle seen in the Kuala Gula Bird Sanctuary.








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