Shrimp Pastes

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There are numerous regional variations of shrimp paste, all made essentially the same way. Small shrimp are pounded or ground, combined with salt, and then fermented. The Vietnamese version is the runniest, the Thai variety is a bit pastier, and the Malaysian type is so dry that it forms a sliceable block. The different varieties of shrimp from each area and the varying moisture contents of the pastes give each of them a unique flavor. They really should not be used interchangeably if avoidable.

The Thai version, called gkapi, is a pungent, thick, dark paste with a slightly pink tint that’s almost always included in Thai curry pastes. Wrap a ¼-inch-thick amount of it in wild pepper leaves, banana leaves, or aluminum foil, and then toast it over an open flame before using it.

Vietnamese shrimp paste, known as mắm ruốc or mắm tôm, is essentially the same purplish paste as Southern Chinese fine shrimp paste. It is so important in Vietnamese culture that when looking for an article of clothing, one might ask for mắm ruốc color, since its purple hue is favored by ladies across Vietnam. mắm ruốc is used in the central and southern parts of Vietnam and is made from very small shrimp, while mắm tôm is a more northern style made from larger shrimp.

Malaysian/Singaporean belacan is an almost crumbly shrimp paste. It is so pungent that it should be wrapped in multiple layers of plastic to prevent everything in your refrigerator from taking on its smell. Malaysians also toast the belacan over a medium fire [recipe/tech.] for a couple of minutes before using it; I usually sandwich a spoonful between two layers of foil, push down to flatten it, and put it directly on a low flame for ten to twenty seconds on each side.