Shrimp paste (Recipe: spicy peanut sauce)
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.
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
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.