The underground world of blachan in the Northern Territory where recipes are top secret

A drive out of Darwin and into the heart of the city’s suburbia, a peculiar smell drifts out of a home and it’s drawing in the flies.

“It’s like a real dead fishy smell,” said Mark Motlop, who cooks the spicy condiment, blachan, from his home in Wulagi.

“But as you start to cook it and add all the ingredients, you get a sweet smell and it turns into something that you get used to,” he said.

A man stands in a kitchen and is mixing chillies, ginger and garlic in a food processer.
Before buying a blender, it takes about six hours to finely cut the ingredients.(ABC News: Hamish Harty )

Loaded with a mix of fresh chilli, ginger, garlic, onion and shrimp paste, blachan is a popular relish across Australia’s far north.

How it tastes is either loved or loathed, and getting your hands on a jar usually comes down to local connections.

“If we have a barbecue, the blachan is always on the table,” Mr Motlop said.

“If you go to a wedding in Darwin, there’ll be blachan there, someone will sneak it in.

A blender filled with finely cut red chillies, ginger and garlic sits on a kitchen bench.
Mark Motlop sometimes uses up to 600 chillies to make his blachan.(ABC News: Hamish Harty)
A finely cut mix of red chillies, ginger and garlic are added to a large pot.
A mix of fresh chilli, ginger and garlic go into the pot and simmer with the onion and oil.(ABC News: Hamish Harty)

Spices, family and ‘that stench’

Mr Motlop grew up watching his father Edward, who moved to Darwin from the Torres Strait Islands in the 1950s, make the spicy sauce.

His father made “the real deal”, he said, using fresh shrimp paste, known as hama, sourced from a Chinese grocer well before the packaged varieties came to town.

However, Mr Motlop couldn’t stay in the kitchen for long to watch his father make it because of the “stench” that would rip through the house.

A spicy mix of chillies, onions, ginger, garlic and shrimp paste cook in a pot with oil.
It takes Mark about two and a half hours to make blachan from start to finish.(ABC News: Hamish Harty)

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 was forced to learn the recipe over expensive long-distance phone calls to his father back home.

“I continued making it and just tried to make it as good as my dad did,” the 63-year-old said.

After playing football in leagues across the country, Mr Motlop came back to Darwin and played 269 games with the Nightcliff Football Club – where his family name reigns.

He then spent the next 30 years of his life coaching most football clubs in Darwin and said blachan was key to his success as a coach.

a man stands over a pot that's cooking on the stove top and adds ingredients to the mix.
Mark Motlop usually makes blachan outside on the verandah because of the smell. (ABC News: Hamish Harty)

Tracing the history of blachan

In Indonesia, the spicy shrimp sauce is known as sambal belacan and throughout South East Asia, the delicacy goes by many different names.

Growing up, Mr Motlop thought the sauce was “just a Torres Strait Islander thing” until he noticed his Indigenous family on his mother’s side were making it too.

It led him to think about Makassan seafarers, who fished for trepang in northern Australia and traded with Aboriginal people along the Arnhem coast in the 18th century.

“The Makassans were definitely part of that trade… they had a big part to do with blachan coming to Australia,” Mr Motlop said.

A black and white drawing of small ships with people on board.
A drawing of Makassan praus off Raffles Bay near the Coburg peninsula by L. Breton in 1839,(Supplied: Campbell Macknight)
A black and white drawing of Aboriginal people mixing with Makassan traders on the shore.
A drawing by HS Melville of the Makassans at Port Essington on the Coburg Peninsula in 1845.(Supplied: Campbell Macknight)

Communities unite over love for chilli sauce

Hidden at the back of an inner-city arcade, Nurainiah Majid starts her week by making a fresh batch of sambal belacan for customers at her Indonesian restaurant.

Three kilograms of fresh chillies, bought at the local market, are first to go in the blender with onion, tomato and a block of packaged shrimp paste, that resembles a soap bar.

Unlike Mr Motlop’s method of simmering everything in a pot, Ms Majid fries her mix in a wok until the chillies change color and the flavor is locked in.

“I put the fire on and cook it with a bit of oil, salt and sugar, that’s it… but you have to be careful not to burn it,” she said.

a woman wearing a hijab is cooking over a gas stove
It takes about half an hour to cook sambal belacan once it goes into the wok.(ABC News: Hamish Harty)
Three stainless steel bowls filled with fresh chillies, onions and tomatoes sit on a bench.
As much as 3 kilograms of locally grown chillies are added to the sambal mix.(ABC News: Hamish Harty)
A mustard colored block of packaged shrimp paste sits on a bench.  It reads Belacan.
Packaged shrimp paste is a key ingredient.(ABC News: Hamish Harty)

It’s a recipe the 46-year-old learnt from her mother back home in Surabaya in East Java, and brought it with her 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 were asking for blachan – the phonetic way of saying shrimp paste in Bahasa.

The mother of five regularly gets customers from Arnhem Land popping into her store for the relish and said “it’s all they want” from the bain-marie.

Two women wearing hijabs stand in a restaurant kitchen and are smiling at the camera.
Nurainiah Majid (left) pictured with her daughter Izzah, was taught how to make sambal back home in Indonesia.
A spicy paste is served in a bowl.
Sambal is a popular condiment throughout Indonesia.(ABC News: Hamish Harty)
A woman wearing a hijab stands over a large wok and is mixing the food with a wooden spoon.
Nurainiah Majid prepares a weekly batch of Sambal to serve at her restaurant.(ABC News: Hamish Harty)

The secretive side of blachan

Nurainiah Majid said “there are no secrets” to her recipe and she’s 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 fiercely guarded about what they put in.

“People are pretty protective about what they make and how good theirs is… there’s a bit of rivalry.

a pot is simmering with oil, chilli, onion and garlic
The Territory’s blachan-makers are tight-lipped about what goes in. (ABC News: Hamish Harty)
A birds eye view photo of a red sauce in a jar.  It is on a white table.
The aromatic finished product is popular with locals.(ABC News: Hamish Harty)

Mr Motlop is fairly open about his ingredients – except for one, which he adds to the pot at the very end.

“A good chef never gives away his full recipe… so that’s the one thing that I don’t let you know what I put in,” he said.

As for who can claim ownership to the relish in Australia?

Mr Motlop said he’d have to “build a 20-foot fence with barbed wire” if he said Darwin owned it over Cairns and Broome and said the sauce has come to represent the way of life, up north.

“People from all walks of life will want it, whether you’re Indigenous or not, or from another country… you’ll have a taste and you’ll want more.”

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