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August 5, 2007

Shrimp paste (Recipe: spicy peanut sauce)

Shrimppaste

A hard-boiled egg rolls under your refrigerator.

You forget about it.

(Would you really forget? I would. I did, once. Don't ask.)

A few days later, a foul smell begins to permeate the room, but you can't quite locate the source. You wonder what type of creature has died in the wall.

You hold your nose. You open the windows. You go out to eat, and hope the odor dissipates before you get home.

Now, ask me why I keep anything that smells like this in my pantry.

In many cuisines, you simply cannot achieve an authentic taste unless you use authentic ingredients. This is true of Asian cooking, Mexican cooking -- well, most cooking. When you taste a dish in a restaurant and then try to make it at home, substituting a little bit of this and that (regular soy for black soy, bell pepper for piquillo pepper), you wonder why the dish never tastes quite the same. Often "this or that" is the reason.

Shrimp paste is one of those authentic condiments that makes the difference between "real" and "sort-of-like" cooking.

When you first open the package, it smells like incredibly salty, old fish -- which it is. Called blachan, blacan, balachan, belacan, trassi, kapi or gapi, depending on country of origin and the whim of the transliteration, shrimp paste is made from fermented, tiny brine shrimp. The thick paste that forms as the shrimp are broken down (fermented) by salt is then ground up into a smoother paste and sun dried. It comes in slabs or blocks (usually labeled dried shrimp paste), or in a round jar with a tight-fitting lid. The lid is important for keeping that strong smell out of your refrigerator; this condiment can last almost indefinitely.

The amazing thing about shrimp paste, which is never eaten raw, is that once it's cooked, the flavor and odor mellow into a lovely background taste, much as anchovies melt into a sauce and provide a salty, nuanced undertone. In fact, if you don't have shrimp paste, you can substitute anchovy paste (milder) or some anchovies mashed with a tiny bit of water.

Use the real thing (easy to find in Asian markets or online here and here) to make really delicious Indonesian, Malaysian and Thai dishes, or this one from The Philippines, where shrimp paste is called bagoong.

Oh, and check under your fridge every now and then, just in case there's a stray egg rolling around.

Spicy peanut sauce

Somewhere in Malaysia, Ted and I and my cousin Martin went to a traditional roadside satay place, where satay is all they serve. There was a large wood-fired grill set up outside, with picnic tables surrounding it; you would eat and eat and at the end, they counted up the number of empty skewers on your table to calculate your bill. This peanut sauce, from Corinne Trang's The Asian Grill, comes closest to my memory of the peanut sauce served at that roadside stand. Makes 5 cups.

Ingredients

2 Tbsp vegetable oil
1-1/2 to 2 Tbsp red curry paste
1 Tbsp shrimp paste
1-1/2 cups unsalted roasted peanuts, finely ground
1/4 cup granulated sugar or palm sugar
2 cups unsweetened coconut milk
2 cups chicken broth
1/2 cup tamarind concentrate*
3 Tbsp hoisin sauce
1/2 cup packed fresh Thai basil leaves, minced
1/2 cup packed fresh cilantro leaves, minced

Directions

In a saucepan, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the curry paste and stir-fry until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add the shrimp paste and continue to stir-fry until the shrimp paste is broekn up and one shade darker, about 1 minute. Add the peanuts and stir, roasting until two shades darker but not burnt, 8-10 minutes. Add the sugar and continue to stir-fry until the sugar is dissolved and starts to caramelize, 1-2 minutes. Add the coconut milk, chicken broth, tamarind concentrate and hoisin sauce. Reduce the heat to low and simmer the sauce until slightly thickened (look for a créme anglaise consistency), about 30 minutes. By that time, the natural oils from the peanuts should have surfaced. Turn off the heat and add the basil and cilantro. Cover and let cool. Store in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.

*TO MAKE TAMARIND CONCENTRATE: Place a 16-oz package of tamarind pulp in a bowl and pour 2 cups of boiling water over it. Cover with a plate and allow the pulp to steam and soften for 30 minutes. With a fork, loosen the pulp in the hot water until thick and cloudy. Strain through a sieve set over a bowl, pressing on the pulp with the back of a large spoon. Discard the seeds and fibers. Transfer the concentrate to a jar. Cover and refrigerate for up to 1 week, or freeze in an ice cube tray for up to 3 months.

[Printer-friendly recipe.]


More recipes in The Perfect Pantry:

Opor manuk
Tahu goreng
Pineapple shrimp curry

Comments

We had a mouse die in the wall behind the shower once... it took weeks for the smell to dissipate....At least you could move the fridge - or not!
The peanut sauce sounds great, but I'm afraid my pantry is not up to the task. I need to go to a city and find some more 'exotic' markets...

Oh yes! It can really scare people who've never smelled it! Love that recipe!

Another "secret ingredient" revealed! I've never used shrimp paste before, but I have always wondered why the home recipe "isn't quite right!" Good insights!

Yum! I think I'd like this sauce. ;-)

Paz

LOL, beginning with 'shrimp paste': two words that definitely do not belong together. And then the egg, oh gosh. Enjoyed the travelogue as much as the recipe.

What about the Chinese name - hum ha? Delicious in fried rice.

Shrimp paste is so essential in an Asian pantry! I kept three types of shrimp paste bottles myself since they do vary in taste and fragrance (and colour, too!).

Very true about those ingredients that really give authentic flavor. Now if I had to make this wonderful sauce, I'd be making substitutions for the shrimp paste and tamarind and how authentic would that be?

I have used this one, and the first time I did I tried a taste out of the jar, mistake!

It put me off for a long time, but I can't still 'taste' it in my mind, so I'll give it a go again!

Katie, we too have had a mouse die in the wall... horrible experience! A shopping trip to stock the pantry sounds like fun, tho.

Sher, the first time I opened a jar of shrimp paste, I couldn't believe the smell. Now I just think about how good my finished dish will taste!

TW, it's so satisfying when you manage to replicate the taste of something you loved in a restaurant, just by using the "real" condiments and spices. I think the quest for good Chinese food is what originally drove me to add so many odds and ends to my pantry.

Paz, it's really good -- and easy to make. I hope you'll try it, especially with so many great markets available in NYC.

Marcia, we'll have to cook something with shrimp paste one of these days -- you'll be surprised at the different a small spoonful makes in a dish. (and don't ask me about the egg...)

Okihwn, welcome to The Perfect Pantry. Hum ha -- thanks! I'm glad to learn that.

Anh, you are much more of an expert than I am! What are some dishes you make with shrimp paste?

Callipygia, if you substituted for both of those ingredients, you'd just be making a different sauce -- maybe something even more wonderful....

Kelly-Jane, oh yes, this is one of those condiments that you definitely should not taste before cooking! It's awful in the raw state, isn't it? But cooked... so mellow.

I've never used this, but I just adore tamarind so I'm guessing I'd like the peanut sauce very much. Have to look for it.

Guess what! I met Corinne Trang at a grilling class I took. She was just as nice as could be, and what great food she made. I have this cookbook too (one of the many I never manage to look at, so many cookbooks, so little time.)

The philippines have a famous dish called "binagoongan", basically it's pork with shrimp paste. When the hubby and I were dating , I lovingly made this for him. Unfortunately, the shrimp paste taste and smell was very strong plus it had fish sauce. Not wanting to hurt my feelings, he tried to eat it with yoghurt which is an abomination! Anyway, long story short, now that we're married, shrimp paste is banned in the house except if I promise to cook it outside.

Great ingredient! Gotta love the foods that smell awful but taste delicious! :D

Veron, haha, sounds like my cousin married to a British man in the UK. Bagoong and dried fish for that matter (daing etc) are banned from their house too. And I must say, binagoongan is one of the best things you can do with bagoong!

Lydia, you must try it with mangoes, the greener and more sour the better. That is a favorite in the Philippines. It has also been made into a green mango salad, where cubes(or strips) of green mango is mixed in with tomatoes, onions and then tossed with bagoong. Yum! :)

I love shrimp paste! No matter how much it stinks ;-) It's nice to see you highlighting this. There is also another version, called "belacan" (can't think of an English name for it) which is smells the same but is sold in mini cakes. It has to be toasted before use to bring out the aroma and flavour.

Kalyn, a whole world of Asian cooking will open up to you with a bit of shrimp paste here and there. How great that you met Corinne Trang, too -- I'm really enjoying this cookbook.

Veron, I think a lot of people would side with your husband on this one! I do give him high marks for trying it.

Amy, sometimes you just have to hold your nose and trust your tastebuds!

Christine (and Veron), I feel I really have to try binagoongan -- anyone have a recipe to share? I don't think I've ever had green mangoes -- sounds yummy.

Nora, I've tried the belacan (in English it's called dried shrimp paste), but I end up throwing out most of it because the smell always seems to escape from the packaging. Shrimp paste is definitely one of the more "exotic" ingredients in my pantry.

I have exactly the same jar with the seal still intact; bought it a few years ago. I've a feeling it will last through eternity. Is it stinky like nam pla or worse?

Lydia, I've heard many times this paste is stinky as hell... :)
And now that you confirmed that, I don't think I'm buying it. lol

This has prompted me to head out to our local Asian market to pick some up. Nothing like a little fermentation to add taste and flavor. Thanks!

Susan, don't tell anyone, but I think it's stinkier than nam pla. But, in the same way, absolutely worth using the real thing.

Patricia, no getting around it, this stuff has a strong odor. You've probably eaten it in Asian restaurants, though, and not even known -- like anchovies.

Brys, hooray! If you're like me, you love any excuse to go to the local Asian grocery.

I used shrimp paste too but those that is already mixed with chili - called sambal belacan. Hell to smell but heaven when used in cooking. :D

Tigerfish, this is new to me -- but what a perfect combination. Sambal belacan -- I will look for it in my Asian market. Thank you!

Wow - I am an avid Thai peanut sauce fan - I absolutely love chicken satay dipped in it. And whenever I'm dining out Thai and order that, I ask for extra peanut sauce to last through the rest of the meal. I never knew it had shrimp paste in it! This is interesting - I know I'll still order it though, even though the thought of opening that pictured jar makes me cringe. Thanks for the enlightenment.

Hillary, not all peanut sauce will have shrimp paste, but people who are allergic definitely should ask. As I've said, like anchovies, you wouldn't know it's in there, because cooking takes care of the smell and the fishy taste. All you're left with is a bit of rich saltiness from a source you can't quite identify....

Lydia - Christine is right, green mango with shrimp paste is also a great combo. I'll try to dig up the recipe for pork in shrimp paste. And Okihwn just reminded me of the Chinese version that my grandmother makes. It is just small cutlets of pork steamed in Chinese shrimp paste called "hum-ha tsen tsi-nguk" (shrimp paste with pork). Yum ..Yum..

Lydia, this sounds so delicious, and your description of tasting this in Malaysia puts me right there. I can smell the woodsmoke!

Veron, I love what you wrote about shrimp paste today, so I'm sharing the link:
http://kitchenmusings.typepad.com/my_weblog/2007/08/a-cross-cultura.html

Karen, somewhere I've got the name and address of that roadside stand written down.... I'd go back in a minute!

Lydia, i will take a photo of the Vietnamese shrimp paste and show you. It's purple in color.

As for usage, we use shrimp paste for dipping. Not straight from the bottle, but whisking it until 'bubble' stage with some lime juice, sugar and chili slices. It's delicious for fried tofu, steamed meat etc.

The shrimp paste is also used to flavour broth for varieties of seafood noodle soup. But it's added as the customers' request since not everyone fond of this smelly stuff. :)

Anh, thank you so much. The dipping sauce sounds very delicious -- is it cooked, or uncooked? I will have to do more research! I'm so grateful to you (and to all readers) for sharing recipes and cooking tips.

Lydia, shrimp paste...wow. Next time, try out the shrimp paste I recommended on my new post...it's from Penang and it's really good.


RM, here's the link to your post. I will definitely look for this in my local Asian market:
http://www.rasamalaysia.com/2007/08/penang-chee-cheong-fun-steamed-rice.html

My mom baked the shrimp paste and put in a plastic bag in a jar and sealed up for me to take back to France. :) The first time I cooked it in France, the whole house smelled so bad that I had to fan and spray it before my other half came home.

Ninja, I'm just imagining the smell seeping out of the plastic bag... it amazes me that something that smells so strong can make food taste so good.

Its funny to have all this Asian food to be around in an American household... they couldnt stand the smell of the shrimp paste and the dried fish. It is not bad after all. Its not the worst food you could eat compared to what Andrew Zimmerman have eaten all across the world. Its a matter of getting use to the smell...taste it is good you will certainly forget the smell.
I still cook them in my kitchen pretending it didnt smell at all. There are some ways you will minimize the smell like cooking dried fish you could do it in an oven toaster or oven. Dry heat seem to take care of that. Frying certainly make the whole house perfumed with the scent.

Dafne, my pantry has many ingredients from cuisines all over the world. Some are things that have a strong smell, like this shrimp paste, or anchovies; but all are important to cooking authentic dishes or recreating authentic flavors. Thanks for the suggestion about cooking with dry heat. I'll definitely try that.

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  • My name is Lydia Walshin. From my log house kitchen in rural northwest Rhode Island, I share recipes that use what we keep in our pantries, the usual and not-so-usual ingredients that spice up our lives.

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