“Blachung” – there are as many alternate spellings as there are recipes – is for many Top End families the sauce (or sambal) that keeps them together and provides a common culinary reference point.

As part of Darwin NAIDOC celebrations for 2019, the Larrakia Nation Aboriginal Corporation – hosts and organisers of many of this week’s great events – held a competition to find the best Blachung sauce at its Coconut Grove headquarters.

I caught up with a few locals to see what they thought about their favourite condiment. Like a mug I asked Larrakia man Mark Motlop who made the best Blachung. “Mine!” he responded. And the second best? “Mine!” and broke us all up in peals of laughter.

Mark went on to explain that plenty of his aunties made Blachung:

Everyone has their own different style of making it and everyone thinks that theirs is the best but blachung is just nice!

Where does blachung come from? Well, the Indonesians have their own different style – they call it “belachan” and there’s “blachan,” which you can buy in blocks from the shops – that is the dry one – and then there’s “blachung” that I’m used to – My father is from the Torres Strait, my mother is a Larrakia woman and I learnt to cook blachung from my father.

Plenty of folks reckon that cooking blachung was not for the faint-hearted, not least because of the universal ingredient of shrimp – which can come in a dry block or as a paste and the particular smells they put off when cooked.

Mark Motlop reckon he tries to cook it indoors until his missus gets sick of the smell and sends him outside.

Northern Land Council CEO Marion Scrymgour reckons that you could always tell when her Mum had blachung on the go.

You could always tell when the blachung was cooking – not just that smell, but also the flies on the screen door – sometimes there would be hundreds of those big blue blowflies trying to get to that smell! But when it was cooked, YUM! It is just like honey to a lot of Aboriginal families in Darwin.

Maisie Austin from the NT Stolen Generations Aboriginal Corporation reckons that her family would always cook inside the house.

Yes, they cooked inside. I remember when dad used to make it everyone used to have to go outside because it just stank the place out!

Apart from the extraordinary olfactory impacts and entomological attractions of cooking blachung, there was widespread agreement on its origins somewhere in Asia.

Nigel Browne of the Larrakia Development Corporation noted the links between Darwin’s Asian history and demography and its favourite condiment.

[Blachung] obviously has Asian influences but if you look at the history of Darwin over the last couple of centuries, for a long time the largest part of the population was Chinese and a lot of our Larrakia families have Chinese backgrounds as well. But also Malay, Filipino, Indonesian, Timorese – all sorts. I think it has been more than a century of a cultural and culinary melting pot and blachung is one of the things that’s come along for the ride.

The prawn paste is the base of course but a lot of people use really different things. Some use chicken giblets, turtle guts, goose giblets.  All sorts of stuff. Some of it is very, very hot, some is mild and some has more flavour than heat. I like a lot of heat and a lot of flavour!

Wadjigan/Larrakia man Jerome Cubillo credits the early Macassan traders with the introduction of blachung and of the impact on good food on community relations.

For me it has got to come from the Macassan trading days – bringing all their spices across to the Top End for hundreds of years and that Asian influence. It might be just a unique thing to Darwin, growing up here with all the different cultural influences – the Chinese, the Filipino and more – that just added to the mix. Our mob like the flavours and it caught on – and was adapted locally of course.

I think it speaks about how diverse Darwin is and how we are really fortunate here. From the very start of Darwin we had a whole mix of different cultures coming into one place, interacting with Larrakia and other Aboriginal cultures. This is a unique place where growing up you didn’t know any different from seeing a whole range of cultures just coming together at places like the Saturday markets at Parap, the Mindil Beach markets and the Sunday markets at Rapid Creek and Nightcliff. I think people getting together around food is a special thing that breaks down stereotypes and stigmas through food. What could be better!

No-one could agree on who made the best blachung. For Marion Scrymgour it was her Mum that made the best but she also credits former NT government Minister and NLC Director Jak Ah Kit as one of the best blachung makers.

For Careflight’s Peter Costello it was all about being local.

Local people … local people. (Laughs) It depends what chilies you put in and what you add to it so it is very hard to explain.

For Northern Land Council Chair Samuel Bush-Blanasi the best was “Pedro’s … and old Jimmy Anderson.”

Maisie Austin’s pal, Tiwi Islander Veronica Virgona reckoned the best place to find blachung in the old days was in the suburb of Stuart Park.

My parents always used to say that if you are looking for blachung go to Stuart Park because you’ll find somebody there with it!  We had the Abala and Lew Fatt families living there. My parents loved it. Us Tiwi islanders, we never made it – but we used to eat it! The blachung made by the Lew Fatt family was always my favourite.

For local legend Sambo (that’s right, just Sambo) the best blachung was made by his godfather. He’s passed away now but “his blachung was the best.”

Jerome Cubillo also keeps it in the family.

My Aunty Pilar Cubillo’s blachung is the best. Well, there is a bit of bias there. It was the first one I tried and also because it packs a lot of punch! I like it hot. You’ve got to do it properly if you are going to do it at all! Aunty Pilar’s is my go to against which I measure all the others. Freddy Adams makes a pretty mean one!

Maisie Austin may just have it all worked out – she supplies the chilies and her family supplies her with the blachung!

Everyone has their own secret recipe, my father and my mother and my brothers are all blachung makers and they are all different and all beautiful. And I supply the chillies! They are quite a big and very hot chilli and they were brought over from Queensland. I’ve been growing them for about 30 or 40 years.

And, like pretty much everyone else I interviewed, blachung goes with just about anything. Maisie Austin again.

Rice, steak, bread … anything! Chicken vermicelli (laughs) whatever you are eating … omelette, whatever!

Mark Motlop reckons blachung on rice is the go.

You can put it on ham and cheese sandwiches, on top of your steaks, on rice – on top of the rice is the best way to eat it.

Nigel Browne gets the last words – he puts blachung on …

Anything … and everything! (laughs) Probably not for breakfast but most definitely … I like using it like Hot English Mustard. I’ll put the blachung on the steak and I’m all set!

And the winners of the inaugural NAIDOC Blachung cook-off for 2019 were:

First place: Judy Kennedy;

Runners up: Mark Motlop & Steven Cardona.

See you all next year!