Haam ha cheung (“salty prawn paste”) is one of the most commonly used condiments in Cantonese cuisine. Paler, smoother varieties are known as haam ha goh (“salty prawn cream”). Rather like durians and oysters, shrimp pastes are an acquired taste – people either crave or abominate them.
In the Malay-speaking world, this pungent concoction is known as belachan; in Indonesia it is terasi. Various kinds are made across Southeast Asia, and bagoong, the staple table condiment from the Philippines, along with Burmese ngapi, are reputed to be the strongest. Most use shrimp, of various sizes, but some, especially those in Indochina, use small fish as well. By general consent, the best Southeast Asian belachan comes from Penang, where it has been a local export speciality for decades.
According to various Western scholars, manufacturing techniques for this heady substance were brought up with the Portuguese from Malacca to Macau in the 16th century. A heavily spiced home-style Macanese variant, known as balichao, is still made there. Gradually, the process spread to other parts of south China. But, like many such things, exactly where the stuff was first made, and by whom, is now well and truly lost in the mists of time. Garum, the anchovy paste found throughout the ancient Roman trading world, offers a similar provenance conundrum.
Shrimp pastes are used in certain Cantonese seafood dishes – particularly those containing squid – and with some heavier green vegetables, such as broccoli. Like most other kitchen-shelf Cantonese condiments, such as salted soybeans, fermented soybean pastes, pickled Chinese olives and various kinds of preserved vegetables, a little goes a long way. Heavily salted and fermented, shrimp pastes will keep, with airtight storage in a cool place, for several years.
In The Manners And Customs of The Chinese of the Straits Settlements, first published in 1879, J.D. Vaughan describes how the paste is made, and mentions that a sambal or chutney made with it “is exceedingly palatable with bread and butter”. Sambal sandwiches are a pleasantly nostalgic treat, particularly in Singapore, though are seldom seen these days in Hong Kong. Vaughan goes on to note that “belachan is equal or superior to some tastes to any European caviar, or potted meats, or fish prepared with spices, but the taste for it must be acquired. The smell is decidedly objectionable”. Even devotees would not seriously disagree.
During the Pacific war years, shrimp pastes were highly sought after by inventive cooks in search of adequate nutrition in times of shortage. Protein-rich and easily stored, haam ha, when pounded together with chillies, onion, garlic or lime (if any or all were available) made a nutritious, sambal-like condiment. Bland-tasting, poor-quality rice, tapioca or sweet potatoes could be enlivened, which, in turn, provided a psychological boost. Various memoir accounts of prisoners-of-war and civilian internees from Southeast Asia – in particular the Dutch narratives – mention the widespread use of haam ha as a dietary supplement.
Tai O, the scenic coastal settlement in southwestern Lantau, has become regionally famous for good-quality haam ha; at one time, it was also extensively produced on Cheung Chau.
As local tourism has steadily grown in recent years, haam ha manufacture has enjoyed a resurgence and, depending on which way the wind blows, on a hot summer’s day the smell of fermenting prawn paste can be detected at Tai O from right across the bay. Visitors from urban areas often go home with a bottle or two of one of a number of “artisanal” varieties prepared locally. Fried rice with some chopped prawns and a liberal helping of the paste added in during the initial frying process as a flavouring agent has become another “must-try” Tai O tourist experience.