Months—well actually years!—ago I wrote a blog introducing one of the key ingredients of Indonesian cookery: the chilli. I said that I was planning a series on sambal, the range of sauces, relishes, and dishes that chillies are made into. My apologies for the laughable delay to all those who said they were looking forward to it.
How to make a sambal is most definitely in the pipeline—promise! But first, since as well as chillies nearly every sambal includes it also, I think terasi deserves its own little blog. Terasi (the ‘e’ is hardly pronounced, so it sounds like ‘t’rasi’) is another hugely important ingredient in much South-East Asian cuisine. Amongst its many other names are belacan (Malaysia) and kapi (Thailand). I am Javanese, and my Indonesian cooking roots are Javanese. In Java terasi is used in practically everything! It works in much the same way as a stock cube, or MSG, in adding umami to a dish, and magically working in synergy with other flavours to enhance them.
So what is it? It doesn’t actually sound (or smell!) very attractive. It’s fermented shrimp paste. Basically small shrimp are harvested, rinsed, and mixed with sea salt, then laid out in the sun for a few days until the shrimp have broken down and become a dark brown pulp. This is drained and pounded into a paste before being compressed into blocks, wrapped, and sold.
Before you can eat it terasi has to be cooked. You can fry or grill or bake a batch of it for adding to dishes that aren’t themselves going to be cooked—like many sambal recipes. My preferred method is to wrap a block with several layers of aluminium foil and bake it for 30 to 45 minutes, at 180º. After it’s cooked the cake becomes friable: you can crumble it into a coarse powder, which makes it easier to spoon out into whatever you’re making. You can keep it almost indefinitely. Mine lives in the fridge, but that’s not strictly necessary, any more than it is with Marmite. What is definitely a good idea is to keep it in an airtight container. It smells a lot stronger than Marmite!
If you are going to add terasi to a fried dish you just add a little of the raw paste to the other spices and flavour ingredients—garlic, chilli, etc—and cook it with them.
Where to buy it
I buy a lot of my supplies from a fantastic Asian supermarket in Portsmouth. They sell several different types of raw terasi in blocks. They also sell dozens of different brands of shrimp paste in jars (which is how they tend to be sold in countries other than Indonesia and Malaysia). You can also buy jars of Thai or Filipino shrimp paste in virtually any supermarket these days—though I don’t know how the flavour compares with the more artisanal products. I can tell you that the brands they sell in Tesco, Sainsbury’s, and Waitrose contain just shrimp and salt. So that’s all good! I’ll be honest, I also don’t know whether you can treat these jar products as cooked, and just add them to a raw sambal recipe: there’s no harm in frying however much you need before using it in this way.
For an interesting account of the history and making of terasi I recommend an article by Su-Mei Yu in the University of California journal Gastronomica. Her story is set in modern-day Thailand. The first recorded use of terasi was when southern Thailand and Java were part of the same Indonesian empire of Srivijaya.
If you have any questions, or are interested to know more about terasi, or sambal, or Indonesian cooking in general, don’t hesitate to contact me.