Shrimp Paste: A Natural Umami

What is Shrimp Paste?

Shrimp paste, also known as shrimp sauce, is made from fermented ground shrimp and salt, boasting a rich umami taste and a unique aroma. It’s a culinary gem revered in many Southeast Asian cuisines that adds a distinctive flavor to various dishes.

Shrimp paste has a long history, even from ancient times. It probably originates in the region encompassing present-day Malaysia and Indonesia. The production involves a meticulous process that begins with the selection of fresh and high-quality shrimp. The shrimp are cleaned, mixed with salt, and left to ferment for several weeks or even months. This fermentation process allows the flavors to develop and intensify, giving a characteristic taste.

Shrimp paste

How to make shrimp paste?

Transitioning to its production, the fermented shrimp mixture is traditionally sun-dried on trays or bamboo mats. The hot tropical sun acts as a natural dehydrator, reducing the moisture content and transforming the paste into a solid block or cake. In some modern production methods, the manufacturers use mechanical drying techniques to ensure consistency and efficiency.

The resulting shrimp paste is a dark reddish-brown block with a powerful scent that can be somewhat overwhelming to the uninitiated. However, do not let the initial aroma deter you, as its true magic lies in the transformation it brings to dishes. It possesses a depth of flavor that is unrivaled, with its umami notes adding complexity and depth to various recipes.

Applications in Cooking

Shrimp paste finds its way into a multitude of traditional Southeast Asian dishes. In Malaysian cuisine, it is a vital ingredient in sambal belacan, a fiery chili paste that serves as a cornerstone of many dishes. The piquant combination of chilies and shrimp paste creates a symphony of flavors that awakens the taste buds. From stir-fries to curries, sambal belacan infuses dishes with a rich umami kick.

Aside from its role in traditional dishes, shrimp paste can also be incorporated into modern and fusion recipes, adding a twist to familiar flavors. Chefs and home cooks have discovered its ability to enhance a wide range of dishes.

Shrimp Paste in Vietnamese Cuisine

As a Vietnamese, I cannot help but introduce to you some iconic Vietnamese dishes that incorporate shrimp paste. They are bún bò (beef rice noodle) and bún riêu cua (crab rice noodle).

Bún bò (beef rice noodle) is a popular noodle dish that features tender beef slices, rice vermicelli noodles, and a flavorful broth. While shrimp paste may not be the main ingredient in this dish, it is used in the preparation of the broth to enhance its depth of flavor. It adds a subtle umami taste that complements the fragrant herbs, bean sprouts, and lime that are commonly served alongside the dish. The combination of these elements creates a harmonious and satisfying culinary experience.

bun bo hue recipe
Bun Bo Hue

On the other hand, bún riêu cua is a hearty crab rice noodle soup that showcases the unique flavor of shrimp paste. The soup base is made by simmering crab meat, tomatoes, and shrimp paste together. The paste contributes its distinct umami notes, balancing the sweetness of the tomatoes and the delicate flavor of the crab. Along with the addition of fresh herbs and bean sprouts, it creates a delightful and comforting dish.

Both bún bò and bún riêu cua are examples of how shrimp paste is incorporated into Vietnamese cuisine. The use of this ingredient adds depth and complexity to these recipes, making them truly unique and memorable.

So, if you have the chance to explore Vietnamese cuisine, I highly recommend trying bún bò and bún riêu cua. These dishes beautifully showcase the flavorful influence of shrimp paste and the culinary heritage of Vietnam.

 How Long Does It Last?

The longevity of this paste largely depends on proper storage techniques. When stored correctly, it can maintain its quality for an extended period.

To determine the duration, refer to the instructions provided on the packaging. For instance, if the label reads “best before 31 Dec 2025,” the paste may still be viable until early 2026.

Shrimp paste

However, it’s the duration only if the bottle is sealed. Once opened, shrimp paste can be stored at room temperature for approximately 2 months. However, refrigerating it with the lid tightly sealed can extend its lifespan to 6 months. The cool environment of the refrigerator inhibits bacterial growth and safeguards against spoilage, while also preserving the taste and flavor. Besides, to ensure longevity, it is advisable to minimize exposure to air and moisture. These factors can contribute to spoilage. Additionally, remember to employ a clean and dry spoon when scooping the paste from the jar, promptly sealing it afterward.

Regularly inspect the consistency and aroma of the paste, particularly if it has been stored for an extended period. Should the paste develop an unusual texture, off-putting odor, or show signs of mold, it is best to discard it immediately.

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