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Chile Belachan Is Pure Fire, But There’s Depth to Its Heat

Combined with bird’s eye chiles, fermented shrimp paste transforms into a delightfully funky flavor bomb

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A jar of Tacho Blachan Chilli against a red backdrop. Photo collage. Lille Allen/Eater

India did not have much of a packaged hot sauce culture when I was growing up there in the 1990s. For true heat, my family and I ignored the clotting, barely used bottle of Tabasco on the dinner table in favor of the pantheon of fresh and dried chiles, chile powders, pickles, and Indo-Chinese sauces at our disposal. So as an exchange student in Singapore, I was overjoyed to discover chile belachan, a bright-orange shrimp paste-based Southeast Asian condiment that I quickly anointed it as my platonic ideal of a hot sauce. Not only is it the hottest thing to ever enter my mouth, but it’s also among the tastiest.

I wasn’t really a fan of fermented shrimp paste until I tried it in the form of chile belachan, which is also known as sambal terasi. Sambal is an umbrella term for the chile sauces and pastes indispensable to Singaporean, Indonesian, and Malaysian cooking. Along with chiles and aromatics like garlic and shallots, they often include belachan, or fermented shrimp paste. Some two dozen versions of sambal abound throughout the region; its many flavorings include tomatoes, tamarind, kecap manis, dried fish, lemongrass, and fermented tempeh. When it’s combined with a sinus-clearing amount of bird’s eye chiles, fermented shrimp paste transforms into a delightfully funky and fiery flavor bomb.

By the time I moved to the United States, I had somehow managed to forget about my beloved condiment. But that changed during a visit to my corner bodega, where I spotted a jar of Huy Fong sambal oelek. Huy Fong is the brand that pioneered Sriracha; its sambal oelek bears the same trademark rooster. But when I tried it, my excitement quickly waned: the concoction tasted nothing like the full-throttle sambal I had once known and loved..

For too long, sambal oelek, which is the most basic sambal and a foundation for other sambals, has remained the poster child for this complex family. It isn’t that it’s terrible; it’s just that I find its vinegary flavor one-note and boring, so to me, it is to sambal what what Sriracha is to the legions of “hot sauce” from Asia. I decided that I deserve better sambal, and you do too.

I searched Chinatown high and low for chile belachan, only to find a fun-sized jar from Taho in the hinterlands of Amazon — where it’s somewhat ironically referred to as “Southeast Asia’s version of Sriracha.” Its flavor begins with a burst of acidity and saltiness, followed by a gradual build up of habanero-like heat in the center of your tongue. It ends with a touch of richness and the yuzu-like sweetness of calamansi. And while it resembles Thai curry paste or gochujang in appearance, chile belachan tastes like nothing else on the planet. At nearly $15 a pop, the six-ounce jar is not inexpensive, thanks to the pop-star treatment it receives by being flown from Singapore to the States. I haven’t seen it at Southeast Asian grocery stores here either. That said, a little goes a long way (one jar lasts me months) and it’s worth every smidge.

Chile belachan pairs well with just about everything savory: it works equally well as a spread for grilled cheese and mixed with three parts mayo for egg salad, or as a substitute for harissa in a pita. I’ve made chile belachan noodles, dumplings, curries, fried rice, and Thai-style meatballs; I’ve used it to marinate roast chicken, salmon, eggplant, and chickpeas. I’ve mixed it with yogurt for a nori ranch, a hit among even the most spice-averse.

When I added chile belachan to buttermilk brine, I ended up with the best fried chicken I’ve ever made. Mellowed with tahini and honey, the fruity freshness of calamansi makes for an eye-popping salad dressing on kale and shaved carrots, and also works as a fragrant dipping sauce. And while I haven’t used it in desserts yet, a tiny dot to replace the gochujang in these caramel cookies sounds like a baker’s dream.

Auria Abraham, MasterChef alum and the founder of Auria’s, a homegrown Malaysian condiment brand, remembers reading a 2016 article that mentioned that the word sambal only appeared on one percent of U.S. restaurant menus in 2015, but swelled to 50 percent the following year. “The landscape has definitely changed,” says Abraham, who goes by the Sambal Lady on Instagram. She added, “Now most people know what I’m talking about when I mention sambal.” Along with hot chile sambal, Auria sells a lime leaf flavor. In Los Angeles, Evie makes a medium-hot belachan sambal, while Homiah, which is available nationally, sells a vegan version punctuated with seaweed.

If you’re still not convinced, take it from a pro: in 2022, as a very green writer, I interviewed Madhur Jaffrey, the exalted cookbook author who is widely known as the first lady of global Indian cooking. She recounted trying belachan in the 1980s (made by the former Singaporean Prime Minister’s mother, no less), so I sent her a jar of Taho. Days later, Jaffrey called to thank me. She mentioned how much she enjoyed it, and added that she relished it on homemade burgers.

Chile belachan is an excellent ambassador for cuisines from this small speck of the world. Trying to substitute it would be a fool’s errand, so don’t bother. Instead, use it cautiously, and know that no matter what you’re cooking, deliciousness is close.

Mehr Singh is a food and culture reporter based in New York. Her work appears in Bon Appétit, Food52, MR Magazine, and other publications.