A drive out of Darwin and into the heart of the city’s suburbs, a peculiar smell wafts from a house and attracts the flies.
“It’s like a real dead fish smell,” said Mark Motlop, who cooks the spicy condiment, blachan, from his home in Wulagi.
“But once you start cooking it and add all the ingredients, you get a sweet smell and it turns into something that you get used to,” he said.
With a mix of fresh chili, ginger, garlic, onion and shrimp paste, blachan is a popular relish in Australia’s far north.
The way it tastes is either loved or loathed, and getting your hands on a glass usually depends on local connections.
“When we grill, 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 smuggle it in.
Spices, family and “that stink”
Mr Motlop grew up watching his father Edward, who moved to Darwin from the Torres Strait Islands in the 1950s, prepare 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 could not stay long in the kitchen to watch his father prepare it as the ‘stench’ 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 to be found in Adelaide so he had to learn the recipe over expensive long distance calls from his father at home.
“I kept going and just trying to do as well as my father did,” said the 63-year-old.
After playing football in leagues across the country, Mr Motlop returned to Darwin and played 269 games for Nightcliff Football Club – where his family name reigns.
He then spent the next 30 years of his life coaching most of Darwin’s football clubs and said Blachan was key to his success as a coach.
On the trail of history by blachan
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 realizing his maternal Indigenous family made it too.
This led him to think of Makassan seafarers fishing for trepang in northern Australia in the 18th century and trading with the Aborigines along the Arnhem coast.
“The Makassans were definitely part of that trade…they had a big part in Blachan coming to Australia,” Mr Motlop said.
Communities unite over the love of chili sauce
Hidden behind an inner-city arcade, Nurainiah Majid starts her week by preparing a fresh batch of sambal belacan for customers at her Indonesian restaurant.
Three kilograms of fresh chilies, bought at the local market, go into the blender first with onions, tomatoes and a block of packaged shrimp paste that resembles a bar of soap.
Unlike Mr. Motlop’s method of simmering everything in one pot, Ms. Majid stir-frys her mixture in a wok until the chilies change color and the flavor is locked in.
“I put on the fire and cook it with some 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, East Java, and brought to Australia when she immigrated 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 Territorians asked for blachan – the phonetic way of saying shrimp paste in Bahasa.
The mum-of-five regularly has customers from Arnhem Land drop by her shop to indulge and say from the bain-marie: ‘It’s anything you want’.
The mysterious side of blachan
Nurainiah Majid said “there are no secrets” about 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 Blachan-makers are strict about what they put into it.
“People are pretty cautious about what they make and how good theirs is… there’s a bit of rivalry.
Mr. Motlop is quite open about his ingredients – except for one, which he puts in the pot at the very end.
“A good chef never reveals their full recipe … so that’s the only thing I’m not sharing with you,” he said.
Who can claim the relish in Australia?
Mr Motlop said he would have to “build a 20ft fence of barbed wire” if he said Darwin owned it over Cairns and Broome and said the sauce had come to represent the northern way of life.
“People from all walks of life are going to want it, whether you’re indigenous or not, or from another country… You’re going to have a taste and want more.”
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