Shrimp Paste

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Known to most Burmese as ngapi, this staple of the Burmese flavor palate is made of shrimp that have been fermented and processed to a pungent paste. Similar products are used in Thailand (where it is called kapi); Indonesia (trassi), and Malaysia (belacan). It gives an umami depth of flavor to dishes, and when used with a light hand, it is a subtle and delicious addition even for those unaccustomed to it. For outsiders, ngapi tastes strong. Consequently, the amounts called for in this book are at the restrained end of the spectrum. For people who use ngapi all the time, it is an appetite stimulant, just as the aroma of garlic or onions cooking in olive oil or butter is to many people in Europe and North America; as Shwe Nwe U said to me in Mrauk U, “It tastes sweet to us, makes us hungry.” If you are working from this book to feed ngapi lovers, you will want to increase the amount you use, and cut back on salt or fish sauce.

Shrimp paste is used more with vegetable dishes than in meat dishes. Rakhine and Mon people use it with salads; central Burmese tend not to. And the people of the hills—the Karen, Shan, Chin, and Kachin—traditionally do not use it. The Shan get meaty depth of flavor from fermented soybeans (see Soybean Disks) instead.

Shrimp paste is usually sold in glass jars in East Asian grocery stores and is grayish or pinkish gray in color. (In Burma it’s sold from huge pots in the markets.) Some has a smooth, paste-like consistency; other shrimp pastes are firmer and drier in texture. The jars may be labeled “fine shrimp sauce” (like the Koon Chun brand I often use), “shrimp paste,” or “fermented shrimp paste.” The paste keeps, if well sealed in the refrigerator, for a long time. If you can’t find it, or if you don’t want to use it, you can omit it from recipes, with some loss of umami; add extra fish sauce to compensate, or some Dried Shrimp Powder or a dash of brown miso paste.

To toast shrimp paste: Generally, shrimp paste is cooked, either in the dish it is flavoring, or before it is added to an uncooked dish (see Shallot Chutney with Chiles, for example). The easiest way to cook it, given that it smells very pungent as it’s being heated, is to place it, whether paste-like or firmer, on some aluminum foil, wrap it tightly, and cook in a skillet over medium-high heat, as if you were dry-grilling. Turn the package over after a couple of minutes. Let cool before opening the package. It should have a dry crumbly texture. The Burmese method I’ve seen used in home kitchens and that I find easier than the aluminum foil technique is to smear the paste on the back of a large metal spoon and hold it over a gas flame, paste side up, until the paste on top cooks and dries on the hot metal.

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