What Is Shrimp Paste?

Learn How to Buy and Use This Southeast Asian Ingredient

Plate of Shrimp Paste for Chinese pot (Chinese fondue or Chinese steamboat)
xia yuan / Getty Images

Shrimp paste (also known as shrimp sauce, kapi, trassi or bagoong aramang) is a strong-smelling, very salty pink paste commonly used as a cooking ingredient in many Southeast-Asian dishes. Traditionally, shrimp paste is made from ground up shrimp which is then fermented under a hot sun. Sometimes it is even formed into dried blocks before being sold. Shrimp paste can also be made by roasting and grinding shrimp at home, but it is a laborious process and is much easier to buy ready-made at the store. Shrimp paste can be either very dry and firm (traditional Thai style) or moist and saucy -- the latter is great for ease of preparation. Also, this is the type commonly sold in regular North American supermarkets 

What's in It?

Shrimp paste contains ground up fermented shrimp and salt. Some imported Thai shrimp pastes may have preservatives added as well, but most of the brands packaged and sold in North America contain only these two ingredients. It is pasteurized for purity and then canned and sold in jars or plastic tubs.

Where to Buy It

Shrimp paste (or 'shrimp sauce' as some brands call it) is available in the Asian section of larger supermarket chains throughout North America (typically with the soy and fish sauce). If you can't find it there, look for it at an Asian/Chinese grocery store.

Substitutions for Shrimp Paste

Shrimp paste can be substituted with fish sauce, golden mountain sauce (a vegetarian option), or a good vegetarian stir-fry sauce (Lee Kum Kee Stir-Fry Sauce is a good brand). If you are following a recipe that calls for shrimp paste, use this equation: 1/2 teaspoon shrimp paste = 1 tablespoon fish sauce, golden mountain sauce, or vegetarian stir-fry sauce. In a pinch, you can also substitute soy sauce, but you'll find the dish may taste weak or turn out too dark in color.

Is Shrimp Paste Healthy?

Shrimp paste isn't the healthiest product in the world, simply because our seas are not as clean as they used to be, and shrimp paste is basically just shrimp in a concentrated, condensed form with plenty of salt added. Many Thai recipes can be made either by omitting it or by using one of the substitutions suggested, and they turn out just as well. If you are pregnant, suffer from heartburn, or are on a reduced salt diet, shrimp paste isn't recommended. Enjoying a traditional Thai dish with this ingredient is fine on occasion, but there are quite a number of good vegetarian/vegan Thai restaurants in the U.S. and Canada as well as in Thailand which does not use any shrimp paste whatsoever.

Calories/Nutritional Information

1 teaspoon shrimp paste typically contains 5 calories, 0.15g total fat (cholesterol = 8.2g), 340 mg salt, 1 g protein, 2% calcium, and 2.2% iron.

The Best Ways to Use Shrimp Paste

Lee Kum Kee Shrimp Sauce or a similar 'saucy' shrimp paste is easy to find at regular supermarkets and doesn't contain preservatives. Also, it isn't as strong-tasting as traditional Thai shrimp paste and is easier to blend into your cooking due to its saucy nature. If you do buy the more traditional Thai shrimp paste and find that it is very dry, be sure to stir it well into your dish. If using it in a salad, you will need to stir well to dissolve it completely (a surprise chunk of shrimp paste in a dish will certainly not be a pleasant taste treat!). Otherwise, shrimp paste is simple to use: just add it and stir to blend according to your recipe. Several delicious dishes that incorporate shrimp paste are Easy Thai Red CurryThai Green CurryThai Yellow Coconut CurryThai Green Papaya Salad, and Easy Thai Cucumber Salad.