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Terasi, The Hidden Sources of Umami

Terasi, The Hidden Sources of Umami

Auli Cinantya
01 June 2023


Get to know terasi, the magical Indonesian condiment that elevates dishes with unique flavors and aromas.


In the vast culinary landscape of Southeast Asia, a secret ingredient awaits, ready to impart an unparalleled umami punch to countless traditional dishes. Umami, the Japanese term for “essence of deliciousness,” is a flavor often described as meaty, savory, and mouthwateringly rich. 

In a region renowned for its bold and flavorful cuisine, it comes as no surprise that Southeast Asians have a deep-rooted appreciation for umami. And amidst this love for intense flavors, a natural form of umami has been treasured and passed down through generations in Indonesia—a magical condiment is known as terasi.

Terasi has long been celebrated in Indonesian cuisine for its ability to enhance dishes’ depth, complexity, and distinctiveness. Traditionally used in sambal (spicy condiments), terasi has now found its way into various culinary creations. From the vibrant flavors of bumbu rujak (fruit salad dressing) to the irresistible crunch of kerupuk (crackers), terasi’s unique umami profile has become a versatile companion in Indonesian kitchens. It effortlessly elevates many delicacies, including mie (noodles), rengginan (rice crackers), and beyond.

What is Terasi?

Terasi is a seasoning made from fermented small fish or shrimp. It is a thick paste or dough with a dark brownish-black color, sometimes tinted with red coloring. Its distinctive aroma is an inseparable characteristic of terasi.

This shrimp paste possesses a powerful aroma and flavor. When used as a flavor enhancer, its pungent scent immediately tickles the senses, providing a unique experience. Typically, it is roasted or fried before being used in cooking to enhance its delightful taste and aroma.

Incorporating terasi into dishes elevates their savory and delicious qualities, tantalizing the taste buds. Whether in sambal terasi or a simple stir-fried water spinach dish, terasi adds an extra dimension of flavor, making meals even more appetizing and increasing one’s appetite.

Despite its potency, this traditional condiment is often essential in preparing oriental and sambal-based dishes. It can be found in various Southeast Asian countries, known as belacan in Malaysia and bagoong alamang in the Philippines.

The History of Terasi

The history of terasi traces back to Prince Walangsungsang, who founded the Cirebon Kingdom in Indonesia. The name “Cirebon” itself refers to the abundance of small shrimp called “rebon” in the coastal areas of North Java. Prince Walangsungsang recognized these shrimp’s potential and promoted food seasoning production using them. This seasoning, known as terasi, became a major commodity for the Cirebon Kingdom, traded with the neighboring Kingdom of Sunda Galuh. The Sunda king held a great fondness for terasi, even giving it the name “terasih,” derived from the Sundanese word for love or fondness.

Terasi also proved to be a practical and long-lasting cooking ingredient. It didn’t require refrigeration, which was not yet available then, making it convenient to carry during long voyages. Traders would often bring terasi as a primary provision along with rice. Its ability to enhance flavors made it a beloved and essential seasoning in Indonesian cuisine, adding a unique depth and richness to dishes. The history of terasi reveals its deep cultural significance and enduring popularity throughout the region.

How is it Made?

There are two types of terasi based on their main ingredients: shrimp terasi and fish terasi. Shrimp terasi is made from small shrimp, while fish terasi is typically made from selar fish or anchovies. 

The process of making them is similar. First, the shrimp or fish is boiled, then the fish or shrimp is sun-dried until partially dried and then pounded with salt. The mixture is then sun-dried until thoroughly dried and smashed into a smooth paste that can be shaped. After that, the paste is wrapped in dried banana leaves and left to ferment for 1-4 weeks until the aroma of terasi permeates the mixture.

This traditional method of making terasi ensures the development of its unique flavors and aromas. Fermentation is crucial in producing the distinctive umami taste that terasi is known for.

Different Varities of Terasi in Indonesia

Each region’s terasi boasts unique characteristics, making them prized condiments that add depth and complexity to Indonesian cuisine. From the vibrant colors to the powerful aromas, these terasi varieties contribute to the archipelago’s diverse culinary tapestry.

Terasi Bangka, terasi from Bangka Island, stands out with its vibrant red to purple color, strong savory aroma, and slightly coarse texture. This type of terasi offers a distinct flavor profile that sets it apart. It is made from high-quality small shrimp, ensuring its rich and intense taste.

On the other hand, Terasi Lombok, terasi from Lombok, displays a deep dark color and a strikingly pungent savory aroma. What makes it unique is that it goes beyond using only small shrimp; it also incorporates fish terasi and mixed terasi, resulting in a medley of flavors and aromas characteristic of the region.

Meanwhile, in Tuban, East Java, Terasi Tuban is renowned for its commitment to using natural ingredients without preservatives. It is made from carefully selected high-quality small shrimp, enhancing its authentic taste and aroma.

Lastly, in Rembang, Central Java, there is a special variation called Terasi Petis. This combination of terasi and petis, a thick sweet soybean sauce, creates a bold and robust flavor profile with an enticing aroma.

How To Choose the Right Terasi

When choosing terasi, it’s essential to consider several factors:

  1. Make sure to opt for terasi that comes in intact packaging, avoiding any that show signs of damage, just as you would with other food products.
  2. Pay attention to the texture of the terasi; it should have a solid and dry consistency, making it easy to handle without being mushy.
  3. Take note of the color before cleaning the terasi.

By following these guidelines, you can ensure that you select the perfect terasi to embark on a flavorful quest filled with umami goodness.

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