A drive from Darwin and in the heart of the suburb of the city, a peculiar smell wafts from a house and it attracts the flies.
“It’s like a real dead fish smell,” says Mark Motlop, who cooks the spicy blachan spice from his home in Wulagi.
“But when you start cooking it and add all the ingredients, you get a sweet smell and it turns into something you get used to,” he said.
Packed with fresh chilli, ginger, garlic, onion and shrimp paste, Blachan is a popular condiment in Australia’s far north.
How it tastes is loved or loathed, and getting a jar usually comes down to local connections.
“When we have a barbecue, the blachan is always on the table,” said Mr Motlop.
“If you go to a wedding in Darwin, there will be blachan there, someone will sneak in.
Herbs, family and ‘that stench’
Mr Motlop grew up while his father Edward, who moved from the Torres Strait Islands to Darwin in the 1950s, made the spicy sauce.
His father made “the real deal,” he said, using fresh shrimp paste known as hama, sourced from a Chinese grocer long before the packaged varieties came to town.
However, Mr. Motlop couldn’t stay long in the kitchen to watch his father prepare it because of the “stench” that would permeate the house.
The Story of the Traveling Recipe
When he turned 18, Mr Motlop left Darwin to play Australian rules football with the South Australian Football League.
There was no blachan in Adelaide, so he had to learn the recipe through expensive long-distance phone calls to his father’s home.
“I kept making it and trying to make it as good as my father,” said the 63-year-old.
After playing football in leagues across the country, Mr. Motlop returned to Darwin and played 269 games at Nightcliff Football Club, where his family name prevails.
He then spent the next 30 years of his life coaching most of the football clubs in Darwin and said that blachan was the key to his success as a coach.
The History of Blachan. follow
In Indonesia, the spicy shrimp sauce is known as sambal belacan, and throughout Southeast Asia, the delicacy has many different names.
Growing up, Mr. Motlop thought the sauce was “just a Torres Strait Islander thing,” until he noticed his native family on his mother’s side made it too.
It reminded him of Makassan navigators, who fished for trepang in Northern Australia in the 18th century and traded with Aborigines along the coast of Arnhem.
“The Makassans were definitely part of that trade… they had a big part to do with blachan’s arrival to Australia,” said Mr Motlop.
Communities unite over love for chili sauce
Hidden at the back of an inner-city arcade, Nurainiah Majid starts her week making a fresh batch of sambal belacan for customers at her Indonesian restaurant.
Three kilos of fresh peppers, bought at the local market, go first in the blender with onion, tomato and a block of packaged shrimp paste, which resembles a bar of soap.
Unlike Mr. Motlop’s method of simmering everything in a pot, Mrs. Majid frys her mix in a wok until the peppers change color and the flavor sets.
“I light the fire and cook it with a little oil, salt and sugar, that’s it… but you have to be careful not to burn it,” she said.
It’s a recipe the 46-year-old learned from her mother at home in Surabaya in East Java, and took it with her to Australia when she emigrated with her husband in 1997.
When she opened her restaurant The Sari Rasa in Darwin 20 years ago, Ms. Majid said she “couldn’t believe it” when Territories asked for blachan – the phonetic way to say shrimp paste in Bahasa.
The mother of five regularly gets customers from Arnhem Land who walk into her shop for the relish and say au bain-marie “it’s all they want”.
The Mysterious Side of Blachan
Nurainiah Majid said “there are no secrets” for her recipe and she is happy to share it with people who ask.
But Mr Motlop said it’s not the same in his circles, where Darwin’s blachanmakers are fiercely wary of what they put in it.
“People are pretty protective of what they make and how good theirs is… there’s a little bit of rivalry.
Mr Motlop is pretty open about his ingredients – except for one, which he adds to the pot at the very end.
“A good cook never gives away his full recipe…so that’s the one thing I don’t let you know what I’m putting in it,” he said.
As for who can claim ownership of the taste in Australia?
Mr Motlop said he should “build a six-metre fence with barbed wire” when he said Darwin owned property above Cairns and Broome and said the sauce has come to represent the way of life in the north.
“People from all walks of life will want it, whether you’re native or not, or from another country… you’ll have the taste and you’ll want more.”
Posted 42m ago42 minutes agoFri 17 Jun 2022 at 20:02† updated 20m ago20 minutes agoFri 17 Jun 2022 at 20:23