Umami Issues is The Takeout’s exploration of cooking food with the rich, savory, mysterious taste sensation known as umami.
As much as I love ripe mangoes, I find myself often turning to their green, unripe brethren during mango season in Southeast Asia for a very important reason: peeled and sliced into strips, they’re the perfect, mouthwateringly sour vessels for shrimp paste, the pungent, pinkish-grey ingredient that is the very definition of rasa laut—“sea taste” in Malay.
Made from dried and fermented shrimp (although sometimes mixed with fish), shrimp paste is one of those ingredients that blend so well into the region’s dishes that many people outside of the region don’t realize it’s there. Known by many names in Southeast Asia, its presence provides a rich vitality to stews, curries, and sauces. If you enjoy Southeast Asian cuisine, there’s a chance you’ve already eaten it in one form or another since shrimp paste’s briny, umami-dense flavor is deeply ingrained in Southeast Asian cooking, and it’s impossible to imagine the national dishes of several countries without it.
Enjoyed across the maritime region of Southeast Asia and along the Mekong River, shrimp paste is believed to date back to the eighth century when it was used by the people living in what is now southern Thailand. Batches of shrimp are mixed with salt and fermented and, depending on the variety, are either dried and pressed into blocks or sold as a wet paste. Commercial versions are available in supermarkets across Southeast Asia, but most people still buy their pastes from local, independent producers at wet markets, some of whom have become internationally known for the quality and taste of their shrimp paste, like Bangkok’s Kapi Wan Mae Sali Restaurant.
Despite its strong, distinctive smell and taste, shrimp paste is surprisingly versatile. In Thailand, where it’s known as kapi, it’s mixed with chilies, palm sugar, and lime juice to make a dipping sauce (kapi wan). The recipe is similar to the one used in Laos and Cambodia (and really, for most of Southeast Asia). It’s great for fruit like green mangoes, although I also like it with Granny Smith apples, and a friend’s kid likes it with bananas, but clearly he has an advanced palate. You can use this mixture as salad dressing and toss it together with crushed garlic, peanuts, long bean, shredded green papaya, and tomatoes—maybe add some shrimp and pomelo bits. It’s a salad fit for a king and in fact, at one point in Thai history, only aristocrats were allowed to eat shrimp paste.
Shrimp paste is commonly blended with other ingredients to create a base condiment that is used in cooking or as sauce. The Thai sauce nam prik kapi and the Singaporean/Malaysian/Indonesian sambal, combined with shrimp paste (sambal terasi in Bahasa and sambal belachan in Malay), are used to liven up plain rice, omelets, fish, and vegetables. There are a wealth of recipes online for nam prik kapi and sambal belanchan/terasi, and you’ll find that most of them are trying to reach that magical balance between all existing flavors: spicy, salty, sour, sweet, umami.
In the Philippines, while some people enjoy their green mangoes with plain shrimp paste (bagoong alamang), cooking the shrimp paste brings out an amazing depth to its flavor. Dollops of paste are sautéed with onions, garlic, chilies, tomatoes, vinegar, and sugar to create a mixture that’s not only heavenly with green mangoes, but also pairs with cooked vegetables like okra and eggplant or plain rice, and is also eaten with stews such as the peanut-based kare-kare oxtail stew.
When adding shrimp paste to curries or stews, think of it as something like adding anchovy paste instead of soy sauce or salt to give a dish an extra depth. That complexity of flavor is what makes shrimp paste an excellent choice to add to meats and vegetables when stir-frying. Across Southeast Asia, the simplest dishes made with shrimp paste are among the best: Pork or chicken is cooked with garlic, onions, and chilies, along with other condiments and spices like vinegar and black pepper, before being finished with shrimp paste. One of my favorite fried chicken wing recipes uses shrimp paste as part of the marinade.
Vegetables in particular benefit from a touch of shrimp paste, such as Chinese watercress, unbeatable stir-fried with garlic and a dollop of funky shrimp paste. In the Philippines, there’s a vegetable and pork dish called pinakbet whose varied vegetable ingredients like pumpkin, string beans, bitter melon, and eggplant are held together by shrimp paste, like charms on a bracelet.
If this gets you excited to experiment with shrimp paste at home, a trip to the nearest Asian grocery should get you started, although there are some country-specific differences that you will need to know. For example, commercial Chinese and Thai shrimp paste are usually sold in bottles and range from watery to paste-like in texture. Commercial Filipino bagoong is also usually sold pre-cooked in bottles, and in addition to the smooth paste varieties, you’ll often find chunky shrimp paste with bits of shrimp. Commercial Malaysian belachan and Indonesian terasi, on the other hand, are sold in bricks and are often close in texture to Japanese curry cubes or chicken stock cubes.
Before cooking, most people will wrap a piece of belachan and terasi in foil and toast it over an open flame to bring out the flavor. Some mavericks like my friend will roast a chunk like it’s a marshmallow, claiming that the direct contact with flame makes it taste better, but I don’t think it makes a difference. However you want to toast the shrimp paste, you might want to do this outside or at least in a very, very well-ventilated area because roasted belachan and terasi will make their presence known to everyone in the vicinity.
Take some time to try out different brands from different countries; there’s a shrimp paste out there that will meet your preference in terms of flavor, saltiness, and texture. And once you’ve found your life shrimp paste, treasure it, keep it somewhere cool and dry, and get yourself some green mangoes.