What Is Shrimp Paste, and How Is It Used?

Buying, Cooking, and Recipes

Plate of Shrimp Paste for Chinese pot (Chinese fondue or Chinese steamboat)

Xia Yuan / Getty Images

Shrimp paste is a strong-smelling, very salty paste commonly used as a cooking ingredient in many Southeast Asian dishes. It makes appearances in curries, sauces, and sambal. Typically, shrimp paste can be either very dry and firm (traditional Thai style) or moist and saucy—the latter is easy to prepare and most commonly sold in regular North American supermarkets. 

Fast Facts

Main components: fermented shrimp, salt

Substitutions: fish sauce, Golden Mountain sauce

Most common cuisine: Southeast Asian

What Is Shrimp Paste?

Shrimp paste contains ground-up fermented shrimp and salt. It goes by a number of names, including prawn sauce, shrimp sauce, gapi, kapi, trassi or bagoong. Some imported 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. Depending on the country of origin and its processing, shrimp paste ranges in color from pale pink to deep reddish brown and is a fermented product.

Traditionally, the preparation of shrimp paste dates back to the eighth century and has its roots in southern Thailand, where the shrimp would be harvested, mixed with salt, and spread on bamboo mats to dry under the sun to transform into fermented shrimp paste. Once dried, the shrimp lasts for months. Naturally, the practice spread throughout neighboring countries; shrimp paste still represents an important industry in Southeast Asian countries.

Sometimes it is even formed into dried blocks before it's sold. You could conceivably do this yourself, at home, but it's time consuming and laborious; besides, shrimp paste isn't hard to find and won't break the bank in terms of cost.

Varieties

Throughout Southeast Asia, shrimp paste goes by many names and may, in fact, be made from things other than shrimp or krill (small, transparent shrimp), such as perch, anchovies and/or ponyfish—but it will invariably bear the label shrimp paste somewhere in English on it. It goes by many different names, depending on where it's made.

Bagoong alamang is Filipino for shrimp paste. It's made from shrimp and is often used in cooking along with various other condiments, sautéed and eaten with white rice, or as a topping on green mangoes. It can range in flavor from salty to salty-sweet.

Belacan is a Malay variety of shrimp paste made from krill that's first steamed and then mashed into a paste that is stored for a few months. It's dried and is often prepared with the aromatic aspects of a recipe. Sometimes, if it's going to be incorporated in a sauce or used as a garnish, it's first roasted, which heightens the flavor and aroma.

How to Cook With Shrimp Paste

There are a couple of different types you might find and their consistency will determine how to use them—and how easy they are to use. The brand Lee Kum Kee Shrimp Sauce is a thinner version of shrimp paste and imparts the same qualities to a dish, but because it's more aqueous, is easier to incorporate. Traditional Thai shrimp paste is drier, requiring a good stir. Recipes will generally tell you how to incorporate it into the dish. Just make sure it's dissolved completely, and you're good to go.

What Does It Taste Like?

Shrimp paste tasted savory and salty, with a strong concentrated shrimp taste. However, throughout Southeast Asia, it varies in terms of its taste, saltiness, color, and consistency, depending on the process and the fish or seafood involved, among other factors.

Recipes

You'll find shrimp paste in a number of recipes from Southeast Asia, especially Malaysia and Thailand noodle dishes. A little bit goes a long way, so you don't need much to impart that salty, umami, concentrated fish taste. It also tends to appear in Thai curry recipes, along with stir-fry dishes. Combined with tamarind, garlic, shallots, red chiles, and other ingredients, it forms the baste of the Thai spicy chili sauce nam prik pao.

Where to Buy Shrimp Paste

Shrimp paste (or shrimp sauce, as some brands call it) is available in the Asian section of larger supermarket chains throughout North America, typically near the soy and fish sauces. If you can't find it there, try an Asian grocery store or online. Typically, the products labeled shrimp sauce are not processed with preservatives, and they are not as strong-tasting as the traditional paste.

In the event that you can't find shrimp paste in the store, it can be substituted with fish sauce, Golden Mountain sauce (a vegetarian option), or a good vegetarian stir-fry sauce. If you are following a recipe that calls for shrimp paste, use this equation: 1/2 teaspoon shrimp paste is equivalent to 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.

Storage

This will keep, unopened, almost indefinitely without refrigeration. Once it's opened, store it in a tightly closed jar in the pantry or refrigerator, although the latter is not necessary.

Nutrition and Benefits

Shrimp paste is fairly salty, so if you are on a reduced-sodium diet or pregnant, shrimp paste is not recommended; one tablespoon typically contains about 340 mg sodium.

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.