Wednesday, May 20, 2009

A Taste of Belacan Bintulu

FOR THE MARKET: Some of the products packed in different sizes with different designs and weight.

TRADITIONAL WAY: Normah (right) dries the mixture of bubuk under the sun with the help of her mother.

THERE is no need for a publicity blitz — people will still know it’s the season and the give-away is usually the smell.

Watch out for any fishermen returning with a boatload of shrimps. For from these pink-coloured crustaceans is made the Belacan Bintulu, a popular local shrimp paste, dark pink in colour with a distinct smell and an exquisite taste.

In fact, Belacan Bintulu is known for its ‘excellent dissimilarity’ to shrimp pastes found in other parts of Malaysia, so much so that its value in terms preserving the originality of a traditional food has been incorporated into the catalogue of Sarawak cuisine.

On April 11, 2009, Belacan Bintulu was declared as one of the state’s signature products apart from kek lapis. The true sensation of its unique taste cannot be precisely expressed in words. The test of the pudding is in the eating, so to speak.

Some people may wonder what’s so special about Belacan Bintulu. thesundaypost recently met a producer of the condiment in Bintulu where shrimp paste has been processed for generations.

Normah @ Hasnah Zamhari is the only businesswoman seriously into producing belacan in the Division.

In fact, she is the first resident of Bintulu to venture commercially into what is usually described as a ‘seasonal industry’.

When the balacan season comes around, business may be brisk but during the off-season, the producer cannot afford to sit back and do nothing but must look for alternatives.

Even at the height of the season, production depends largely on the weather. If the seas are rough, stocks are hard to obtain even at high prices.

However, to Normah, producing belacan is still worth a try even though it’s a challenging business.

While most people in Bintulu make belacan for their own consumption with some operating a small business around the village, Hasnah is tapping into the condiment’s potential on a commercial scale.

Her products have received good response from buyers outside Bintulu, including those in Brunei and peninsular Malaysia.

Making belacan has been in her family for generations and the 45-year-old mother of five inherits the skills (and recipe) from her great great grandparents.

She started out as a vegetable seller at 19 — a year after she got married. She sold her produce at Tamu Bintulu for nearly 20 years before switching to another business.

“I had no other choice. Selling veggies took up most of the day and I needed to spend time with my family. So I decided to do food catering. In fact, in 1989, I was already making small amount of belacan for sale in my village.

“When demand increased over the years, I decided to venture seriously into the business. This was in 2000 and I have been producing belacan since,” Normah said in Kampung Baru where she runs her cottage industry business near her home.

On the difference between Belacan Bintulu and other shrimp pastes in the local market, she said the former was known to provide the main flavour in especially Malay dishes.

She claimed that belacan transformed and lifted the aroma and flavour of food, making it tastier.

“This is what whets the appetite.”

Then holding up two pieces of belacan in front of me, she asked: “What’s the difference between them?”

As far as I could sense, one had a strong smell (not her product) while the other had a kind of nice smell.

Normah then chipped in: “What I can tell you — and I think people here would agreed — is that Belacan Bintulu has a good smell, dark pink in colour and remember, no colouring flavours are added.

“It has a sweet taste. And with proper packaging, no one would bother about its smell even in an aeroplane.”

She pointed out that Bintulu was known for a long time as a belacan-producing fishing village and only in recent years did it become known as an oil and gas town after the introduction of heavy industrial projects.

“So no secret at all about how belacan was introduced here since most of the villagers — even today — are fishermen,” she said.

Any secret recipes?

According to Normah, the ingredients are all the same, only the production method might be different.

The ‘air tangan’ could differ — perhaps an external factor leading to the end result, she reckoned.

Systematic processing, she emphasised, was crucial to meeting market requirements — apart from the quality of the bubuk or urang (shrimps) as the main ingredients.

“Each belacan maker, I believe, has his or her own techniques of producing good quality belacan, particularly in Bintulu.

“For us, the most important thing is a high standard of hygiene during production. Of course, there must also be good quality.”

Normah prefers using the smallest shrimps, saying they make the blending or pounding with the lesung (hard bowl) much easier.

Given a choice between modern technique and traditional method, she will still opt for the latter.

“Using the lesung is much preferred. This way, the quality is more obvious. The traditional method is what makes our belacan unique.

But Normah is also realistic.

“To keep a sufficient stock for the market, we, of course, cannot depend solely on the traditional method but must adopt modern production techniques.”

For now, she is marketing her products at a cottage near her house.

“I prefer doing it on my own because when you send the products to a supermarket, you don’t get maximum returns. So I decide to operate my business from home and customers will come here to buy while some order by phone. This is much easier for me — it also reduces operating costs.”

Since making belacan is a seasonal undertaking, Normah said she made keropok, kek lapis and biscuits to supplement her income during the off-season.

Recently, she was among the recipients of a grant amounting to RM75,000 from the Agriculture Department to expand her business.

Earlier, she received an RM8,000 grant in the form of equipment followed by another RM9,000 grant also in the form of equipment from Kemas.

Asked if she had attended any courses, she said: “For belacan, no, but for kek lapis, I took several courses conducted by the Sarawak Economic Development Corporation (SEDC) and for keropok, I attended workshops organised by the Agriculture Department.

She said she welcomed the opportunity from the agencies concerned to promote her products outside Bintulu.

Belacan Bintulu fetches RM30 per kg but customers can get Normah’s products for RM28 per kg if they buy in large amount. Usually, the products can be obtained in the market in February, June, September or October.

How to make Belacan Bintulu

Basic ingredients:
• Shrimps (bubuk)
• Salt
• Tupik or small sago

First, you need shrimps (bubuk). The quantity depends on how much you want to make. For better taste, choose fresh and smaller shrimps.

Before starting the main process, prepare two other main ingredients -- salt and tupik or small sago. Also wash the shrimps clean.

Then, mix all the three items but in the correct quantity because the right amount of salt will make the belacan last longer and most importantly, it will not produce bad smell.

The next step is to keep the mixture in a container or bucket (depending on the quantity) for a certain period (one night), wrapping it with a special transparent plastic wrapper.

After that, take it out and dry it under the sun -- which is more traditional. And no matter how long it takes, it must be totally desiccated.

Once it’s dried out, the next step is to blend or pound it.
It is your choice then to use the traditional method or modern technique -- lesung or machine.

But as Normah has said, the traditional way make the product more delicious and satisfying.

The shrimp paste is now ready. Slice it into cubes or any shape you like.

Belacan can be eaten with green veggies (ulam) and is usually used as an additional flavour in cooking.

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