Discover the tantalizing world of shrimp paste sauce and all its variations! Delve into the diverse culinary traditions behind this savory delicacy and learn how to elevate your dishes with its unique flavor.
Exactly what is shrimp paste?
Crushed or ground shrimp create shrimp paste (xi jiàng) or shrimp sauce. In the same way that fish sauce is salted and fermented, this is as well. The taste is comparable to that of fish sauce, but it is considerably more robust and shrimpier.
It can come in different forms, from liquid sauces and thicker pastes to solid, dried blocks, depending on which culinary tradition the paste comes from.
Cantonese ham ha (Southern China/Hong Kong), Malaysian belacan (Malaysia), Indonesian terasi (Indonesia), Thai kapi (Thailand), Vietnamese mm tôm (Vietnam), Filipino bagoong (Philippines), and probably more that we haven’t heard of all have their distinct names and uses for their respective pastes.
These shrimp pastes can vary widely regarding salt level, smell, texture, and color.
What Are The Applications?
Many Cantonese dishes, most commonly clay pot dishes like stewed eggplant and tofu, use shrimp sauce as the primary flavor agent. Pungent and flavorful, these dishes are among our family favorites.
Aside from dipping, shrimp sauce goes well with stir-fried conch with vegetables and fried tofu. In these Cantonese preparations, ham ha, a shrimp paste, should be used sparingly. For a 4-person stir-fry, a teaspoon is a plenty.
In Malaysia, belacan, a shrimp paste, is also widely consumed. It’s used in many traditional Malaysian cuisines and comes in compact, solid bricks. Stir-fried water spinach with shrimp paste is a family favorite.
Purchasing and Storing
You can find shrimp paste in most Asian grocery stores, particularly those that stock various Southeast Asian ingredients. It’s one of the trickier terms in our glossary to track down, but you can always place a last-minute order for it online.
Unlike fresh shrimp paste, dried shrimp paste does not perish if left out of the fridge. Keep it sealed and in a cool, dry place.
Salted and fermented, jarred shrimp paste can keep for months at room temperature without going bad. However, this ingredient is used less frequently, so we recommend storing it in the refrigerator to extend its shelf life. It can last for up to two years in the fridge if stored properly.
Just ensure it’s well sealed, or else your fridge will end up smelling like shrimp!
Although shrimp paste is an essential component of many Southeast Asian and Southern Chinese dishes, it is difficult to recommend a specific substitute due to its rarity and the fact that it often serves as the primary flavor agent in the dishes in which it is featured.
Fry shrimp heads and shells in oil over medium heat until the oil turns red (the longer you fry them, the more flavor you’ll get). This will give dishes a similar flavor without the need for paste.
You can then use that oil for cooking your dish, which will be infused with the shrimp’s natural flavor and aroma. It won’t taste funky like fermented shrimp, but it will taste like shrimp.