Sarawakians love eating sambal. It is a spicy condiment that is used as a side dish. The most common sambal is sambal belacan. Chili is pounded together with toasted belacan (processed shrimp paste) in a stone mortar. Sometimes, ikan bilis (anchovies) and sweet sour mangoes are added. Salt, sugar and lime juice are the last items mixed in. It is usually eaten with cucumbers or ulam (raw leafy herbs) in a meal of rice and other dishes. Another version is fried belacan with chili that is popular among the Chinese.
Since the chief ingredient in any sambal is belacan, naturally people searched high and low for the best belacan in the country. The Melanaus of Bintulu have always been famous for making the sweetest and nicest smelling belacan. For the uninitiated the smell might be a little overpowering. Bintulu belacan is head and shoulders above the rest of the competition and Sarawakians swear by it. The main ingredient in belacan is bubuk (shrimp). During the bubuk season that reaches its peak in the months of April and May, fisherman harvest hillocks of them. The sea around Bintulu is especially rich in shrimp then.
The shrimp is collected and washed thoroughly to get rid of impurities. It is then sieved and left to dry. Salt is added to taste. Some people feel the shrimp is salty enough and so don’t add much salt while others prefer the salt for its preservative value. Tumpik (very tiny sago pearls) is the chief ingredient that sets Bintulu belacan apart from the other pretenders. This also helps highlight the truly Sarawakian heritage of the product as sago goeshand-in-hand with the Melanau culture. The shrimp, salt and tiny sago pearls are mixed together and left overnight to settle.
The next day the mixture is dried in the sun for a day. Then it is pounded vigorously. This process is repeated two more times. With each pounding the belacan’s final consistency is achieved. Then it is shaped into blocks and wrapped up to be used for home consumption or sale. When looking for belacan it is best to go to Bintulu to seek it out during the bubuk season. Shrimp paste processed this way can easily last a year. It is rich in nutrients and goes a long way towards enhancing any local dish. Today belacan is very popular among the various races in the country. It is a true Malaysian original delicacy.