Sunday, 1 November 2009

The story of Balichão

"To be Macanese", they say, "you have to have a bottle of Balichão in the fridge". In the fridge, note, not necessarily in regular use, though once it was as ubiquitous as soy sauce. Balichão is a delicacy of pulverized shrimp, fermented in salt for many months til it becomes a semi-liquid, lilac paste. Those who love it wax lyrical because it adds a certain piquant kick to anything you eat. Often it was used in cooking dishes like Balichão pork. True devotees ate it neat, on rice.

Balichão looks meek but comes with a long heritage. Once it was made in many Macau households but it's a lot of work to make so certain families with the right equipment became suppliers. Shrimps and other crustaceans and I think chili are ground together with salt water and salt in a huge stone urn with a wooden stick. The mix is sealed and left to ferment for many months, then bottled and distributed to friends and relatives. A community project. I met one of the last Balichão makers whose mix was specially prized because it was so good. Her stone urn and mallet had been in use for 300 years.

Then one day the mallet broke. It''s not something you run down to the shops to replace. Eventually, a museum tracked down what the implement was - a worn-down oar from a traditional sampan, those small boats you see in old photos (there aren't many around today). The museum tracked down an old ship maker who managed to identify it as an antique style, obviously made from a better-quality wood than used in his time. Even if a new mallet was carved to order it wouldn't have been quitre the same because something in the wood gave the family Balichão a distinctive flavour no one else c0uld match. Rather like yoghurt gets started with a batch of old culture. Nothing like good bacteria.

Balichão has a long history. Someone once wrote a paper on the Balichãos of Asia, tracing them along trade routes from China to Europe. Haam ha is the Cantonese version. The good ones, I was told, are a thickish purple paste, though now it's more watery and pinker. In Vietnam and Thailand, there are similar versions, which like haam ha are useful substitutes. Apparently the Romans used to make a similar paste, and use it in the same way. That makes sense, as shrimps are plentiful in coastal places, but don't keep unless you preserve them. Who knows when and by whom Balichão was started but when you eat it, it's like linking to other cultures, other times.

Balichão pork is or was Macau soul food. Pieces of pork were marinated with garlic, tamarind and a bit of Balichão which gave it a bite. My father used to make it, it was delicious. It was always served with a glutinous rice cooked with spring onions and pressed into a mould.

The best Macau cookbook is Cecilia Jorge's "Macanese cooking : a journey across generations" ) published by APEM Associcão Promotora da Instrucão dos Macanese. It's hard to find but it's the genuine article, a communal effort but very professionally produced. A collectors' item! This is the gist of the recipe:

300 gr pork belly with skin (use lean if you prefer but it's not so authentic), 1 tbs tamarind paste, 1 slab Chinese slab brown sugar), 2 tbs Balichão, ginger, garlic, etc. (Tamarind and slab sugar can be found in any decent Chinese supermarket, and use haam ha if you can't get Balichão)

Fry the tamarind paste, Balichão, ginger etc and add the pork (cut in strips), then simmer with the Chinese sugar until the meat has absorbed the juices.


Jessica Maybury said...

this was really interesting! I like your writing style, too. Thank you!

Doundou Tchil said...

Thank you ! Welcome any time. I've just had an email from someone whos said :
"Doubtless the Romans did have a shrimp equivalent. But the vital must-have equivalent of Balichão for the Romans was garum — made from the fermented (in salt like Balichão) innards of fish such as mackerel and tuna. No Roman dish was complete without it." He visited a Roman city and saw the garum factory by the beach - huge holes in the rock that look like rock pools. Must have smelled terrible.