Most of the fishing that goes on in the coastal villages of peninsular Malaysia is a decidedly low-tech affair: It primarily involves casting a net into the Strait of Malacca or laying out longlines of baited hooks, but the inshore waters are also harvested. After spending a day several kilometers out into the seas in a small boat, my local guide – an amiable young man named Kamarudeen – leads me down to the beach to watch as men wade through waist-deep water pulling nets behind them.
The men are seeking prawns, or shrimp, which can be found in abundance here and may be caught for a few days every month. In the words of academics, this is an example of a community-based economy managing a sustainable resource, for these prawns are not destined to be flash-frozen and shipped to some restaurant table in a foreign city. Instead, they will be sold locally, and the villagers only take what they need.
As the men wade through the surf, they push two long bamboo poles that rest on their shoulders. The poles hold open the mouth of a net that trails behind them, scooping up prawns from the murky waters. The prawns are integral in making two traditional seasonings, a cake-like patty called belacan and a liquid version known as cincalok. You can see both for sale in small shops throughout the region, selling for the equivalent of about a dollar.
The actual manufacturing process is done by women villagers, usually working in the yards outside their homes. The prawns are ground up, mixed with salt and allowed to mature a few days before being finished for market. Kamarudeen introduces me to one villager forming the mashed prawns into cakes. He calls her “Makcik” – auntie – and I watch as she methodically takes what looks like coarse sand and works it into a small mold about the size of a hamburger patty. She’ll make hundreds of these in a single day, leaving them to dry on wooden trays laid out in the sun beside a group of noisy chickens and the laughter of her grandchildren.
Small-scale local economies like this are a vital part of coastal communities around the world. As she lays out her patties, “Auntie” tells me the villagers have been doing this for as long as anyone can remember. “We were making belacan when the Japanese came here,” she says with a laugh. History tells me she means 1942, when the Imperial Japanese Army conquered Malaysia, but for Auntie that’s ancient history. And before that, I ask? She looks at me sternly for a moment and then a smile creases her features as she indulges this odd foreign man. “Before that? Ah, you would have to go ask the ghosts.”