Shrimp paste or shrimp sauce is a fermented condiment commonly used in Southeast Asian, Northeastern South Asian and Southern Chinese cuisines. It is known as terasi (also spelled trassi, terasie) in Indonesian, ngapi (ငါးပိ [ŋəpḭ]) in Burmese, Dangpuithu in Mizo (Northeast India), kapi (กะปิ [kapìʔ]) in Thai, Khmer (កាពិ [kaapiʔ]) and Lao (ກະປິ [kapíʔ]), belacan (also spelled belachan, blachang) in Malay, mắm ruốc, mắm tép and mắm tôm in Vietnamese (the name depends on the shrimp used), bagoong alamang (also known as bagoong aramang) in Tagalog, haa1 zoeng3/haa1 gou1(蝦醬／蝦膏) in Cantonese Chinese and hom ha/hae ko (Pe̍h-ōe-jī: hê-ko) in Min Nan Chinese. The Chakma people from the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh, who call it sidol, use shrimp paste extensively in their cuisine.
It is primarily made from finely crushed shrimp or krill mixed with salt, and then fermented for several weeks. Some versions are in its wet form such as those in Vietnam and other versions are sun-dried and either cut into rectangular blocks or sold in bulk. It is an essential ingredient in many curries and sauces. Shrimp paste can be found in most meals in Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines. It is often an ingredient in dip for fish or vegetables.
The tradition to prepare shrimp, fish or seafood through fermentation is widespread in Southeast Asia; it can be found in Maritime Southeast Asia (Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines) to mainland Southeast Asia (Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam), and southern China to a lesser extent. Fermented fish or seafood is an ancient tradition in Southeast Asia, a similar tradition is demonstrated by Cambodian prahok, which is quite similar to the shrimp paste.
Nevertheless, the origin of shrimp paste seems to point to Maritime Southeast Asia. According to Thai tradition, the origin of kapi (Thai fermented shrimp paste) can be traced to their southern territory. As far back as the eighth century, inhabitants of the coastal cities of Pattani and Nakhon Si Thammarat — located in today’s southern Thailand but then ruled by the Malay Kingdom of Srivijaya — used shrimp paste in their cooking. They shared this practice with people from other coastal nations in Southeast Asia, including regions now known as Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam. After King Ramkhamhaeng of Sukhothai occupied Pattani in the fourteenth century, shrimp paste (kapi) became available in Thai court, although it was reserved mainly for aristocrats. In 1666, kapi was described by a Persian diplomat named Ibn Muhammad Ibrahim, in derogative manner as "'rotten food unfit for cooking or eating."
Kapi is also described by Simon de La Loubère, a French diplomat appointed by King Louis XIV to the Royal Court of Siam in 1687. In one chapter, "Concerning the Table of the Siamese" he wrote: "Their sauces are plain, a little water with some spices, garlic, chilbols, or some sweet herb, as baulm. They do much esteem a liquid sauce, like mustard, which is only corrupted crayfish, because they are ill salted; they called it Capi."
In 1707, William Dampier described trassi (or terasi, Indonesian shrimp paste) in his book "A New Voyage Round the World"; "A composition of a strong odor, but it became a very tasty meal for the indigenous people." Dampier described it further as a mixture of shrimp and small fish made into a kind of soft pickle with salt and water, and then the dough was packed tightly in a clay jar. The pickling process softens the fish and makes it mushy. Then they poured arrack into the jars to preserve them. "The mushy fish remains was called trassi," Dampier wrote; "The aroma is very strong. However, after adding a little part of it, the dish's flavour became quite savory."
In the 1880s, trassi was described by Anna Forbes during her visit to Ambon. Anna was the wife of British naturalist Henry Ogg Forbes; the couple travelled through the Dutch East Indies in the 1880s. In her journal she describes the culture, customs and tradition of the natives, including their culinary tradition. Because of this foul-smelled ingredient, she accused her cook of trying to poison her and threw away that "horrible rotten package". Later she wrote: "Then, I observed each dish of the native or European, those that I have consumed since my arrival in the East contains this; the essence of that rotten stuff that has been used as a spice."
Shrimp paste may vary in appearance from pale liquid sauces to solid chocolate-colored blocks. Shrimp paste produced in Hong Kong and Vietnam is typically a light pinkish gray; while the type used for Burmese, Lao, Cambodian, Thai and Indonesian cooking is darker brown. While all shrimp paste has a pungent aroma, the scent of higher grade shrimp paste is generally milder. Markets near villages producing shrimp paste are the best places to obtain the highest quality product. Shrimp paste varies between different Asian cultures and can vary in smell, texture and saltiness.
Belacan, a Malay variety of shrimp paste, is prepared from small shrimp from the Acetes species, known as geragau in Malaysia or rebon in Indonesia. In Malaysia, normally the krill are steamed first and after that are mashed into a paste and stored for several months. The fermented shrimp are then prepared, fried and hard-pressed into cakes. William Marsden, an English writer, included the word in his "A Dictionary of the Malayan Language" published in 1812.
Belacan is used as an ingredient in many dishes. A common preparation is sambal belacan, made by mixing toasted belacan with chilli peppers, minced garlic, shallot paste and sugar and then fried. Sometimes it is toasted to bring out the flavour, usually creating a strong, distinctive odor.
Terasi (trassi in Dutch), an Indonesian (especially Javanese) variant of dried shrimp paste, is usually purchased in dark blocks, but is also sometimes sold ground as granulated coarse powder. The color and aroma of terasi varies depending on which village produced it. The color ranges from a soft purple-reddish hue to darkish brown. In Cirebon, a coastal city in West Java, terasi is made from tiny shrimp (Acetes) called rebon, the origin of the city's name. In Sidoarjo, East Java, terasi is made from the mixture of ingredients such as fish, small shrimp (udang), and vegetables. Terasi is an important ingredient in Sambal Terasi, also many other Indonesian cuisine, such as sayur asam (fresh sour vegetable soup), lotek (also called gado-gado, Indonesian style salad in peanut sauce), karedok (similar to lotek, but the vegetables are served raw), and rujak (Indonesian style hot and spicy fruit salad).
On the island of Lombok, Indonesia, a more savory and sweet shrimp paste called lengkare is made.
Bagoong alamang or "Ginamos" (in Western Visayas) is Filipino for shrimp paste, made from the same Acetes shrimp as in Indonesian and Malaysian variants (known in Filipino/Tagalog as alamang) and is commonly eaten as a topping on green mangoes or used as a major cooking ingredient. Bagoong paste varies in appearance, flavor, and spiciness depending on the type. Pink and salty bagoong alamang is marketed as "fresh", and is essentially the shrimp-salt mixture left to marinate for a few days. This bagoong is rarely used in this form, save as a topping for unripe mangoes. The paste is customarily sauteed with various condiments, and its flavour can range from salty to spicy-sweet. The colour of the sauce will also vary with the cooking time and the ingredients used in the sauteeing. Cincalok is the Malaysian version of 'fresh' bagoong alamang.
Unlike in other parts of Southeast Asia and in Western Visayas, where the shrimp is fermented beyond recognition or ground to a smooth consistency, the shrimp in bagoong alamang (in many parts of the Philippines) is readily identifiable, and the sauce itself has a chunky consistency. A small amount of cooked or sauteed bagoong is served on the side of a popular dish called "kare-kare", an oxtail stew made with peanuts. It is also used as the key flavouring ingredient of a sauteed pork dish, known as binagoongan (lit. "that to which bagoong is applied"). The word bagoong, however, is also connoted with the bonnet mouth and anchovy fish version, bagoong terong.
In Thailand shrimp paste (kapi, กะปิ, IPA: [kapìʔ]) is an essential ingredient in many types of nam phrik, spicy dips or sauces, and in all Thai curry pastes, such as the paste used in kaeng som. Very popular in Thailand is nam phrik kapi, a spicy condiment made with fresh shrimp paste and most often eaten together with fried pla thu (short mackerel) and fried, steamed or raw vegetables. In Southern Thailand there are three types of shrimp paste: one made only from shrimp, one containing a mixture of shrimp and fish ingredients, and another paste that is sweet. 'Nam prik meng daa' is available in Hat Yai and Satul markets. Meng is a night flying bug and its body fluids are pressed and mixed with 'kapi', quite sweet. 'nam prik makaam' is 'kapi' mixed with tamarind, more sour.
A watery dip or condiment that is very popular in Myanmar, especially the Burmese and Karen ethnic groups. The ngapi (either fish or shrimp, but mostly whole fish ngapi is used) is boiled with onions, tomato, garlic, pepper and other spices. The result is a greenish-grey broth-like sauce, which makes its way to every Burmese dining table. Fresh, raw or blanched vegetables and fruits (such as mint, cabbage, tomatoes, green mangoes, green apples, olives, chilli, onions and garlic) are dipped into the ngapi yay and eaten. Sometimes, in less affluent families, ngapi yay forms the main dish, and also the main source of protein.
This Chinese shrimp paste is popular in southeastern China. This shrimp paste is lighter in color than many southeast Asian varieties and is often used in pork, seafood and vegetable stir fry dishes. The shrimp paste industry has historically been important in the Hong Kong region.
Petis udang or hae ko
Petis udang is black colored shrimp paste in Indonesian and Malay. It is called Hae ko in the Hokkien dialect, which means prawn paste. Petis udang is a version of shrimp/prawn paste used in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. In Indonesia it is particularly popular in East Java. This thick black paste has a molasses like consistency instead of the hard brick like appearance of belacan. It also tastes sweeter because of the added sugar. It is used to flavour common local street foods like popiah spring rolls, Asam laksa, chee cheong fan rice rolls and rojak salads, such as rujak cingur and rujak petis. In Indonesia, major producer of petis are home industries in Sidoarjo, Pasuruan and Gresik area in East Java.
In the Chittagong Hill Tracts, Bangladesh, shrimp paste is called sidol or nappi by the indigenous Jumma people. They use it to make vegetable food, such as bamboo shoots curry. This bamboo shoot curry is a traditional food of the indigenous Jumma people. They eat it in this way. First bamboo shoots are collected from the bamboo forest, then defoliated and boiled in water. Then boiling water is mixed with the shrimp paste. Some chili, garlic paste, salt, and flour are added to the shrimp paste mixed with water. The mixture is heated and, after a few minutes, put on the boiled bamboo shoots on the mixture while still heating. After some minutes, the food is ready to serve.
Shrimp paste continues to be made by fishing families in coastal villages. They sell it to vendors, middlemen or distributors who package it for resale to consumers. Shrimp paste is often known for the region it comes from since production techniques and quality vary from village to village. Some coastal regions in Indonesia such as Bagansiapiapi in Riau, Indramayu and Cirebon in West Java, and Sidoarjo in East Java; as well as villages such as Pulau Betong in Malaysia or Ma Wan island in Hong Kong and in Lingayen Gulf, Pangasinan in the Philippines are well known for producing very fine quality shrimp paste.
Preparation techniques can vary greatly; however, the following procedure is most common in China, and much of Southeast Asia.
After being caught, small shrimp are unloaded, rinsed and drained before being dried. Drying can be done on plastic mats on the ground in the sun, on metal beds on low stilts, or using other methods. After several days, the shrimp-salt mixture will darken and turn into a thick pulp. If the shrimp used to produce the paste were small, it is ready to be served as soon as the individual shrimp have broken-down beyond recognition. If the shrimp are larger, fermentation will take longer and the pulp will be ground to provide a smoother consistency. The fermentation/grinding process is usually repeated several times until the paste fully matures. The paste is then dried and cut into bricks by the villagers to be sold. Dried shrimp paste does not require refrigeration.
Shrimp paste can be found in nations outside Southeast Asia in markets catering to Asian customers. In the Netherlands, Indonesian type of shrimp paste can be found in supermarkets selling Asian foodstuff such as Trassie oedang from the Conimex brand. In the United States brands of Thai shrimp paste such as Pantainorasingh and Tra Chang can be found. Shrimp pastes from other countries are also available in Asian supermarkets and through mail order. It is also readily available in Suriname due to the high concentration of Javanese inhabitants. In Australia shrimp paste can be found in most suburbs where Southeast Asian people reside.
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