Shrimp paste comes in different forms and versions, depending on the region it hails from. In this article, we’ll talk about what it is, the different types, and how it’s used.
What Is Shrimp Paste?
Shrimp paste or shrimp sauce (xiā jiàng, 虾酱) is made from crushed or ground shrimp. Like fish sauce, it is salted and fermented. The flavor is similar to fish sauce, except it is quite a bit stronger and, well…shrimpier.
It can come in different forms, from liquid sauces and thicker pastes to solid, dried blocks, depending on which culinary tradition the paste comes from.
Each unique paste has a different name and different applications, including ham ha in Cantonese (Southern China/Hong Kong), belacan (Malaysia), terasi (Indonesia), kapi (Thailand), mắm tôm (Vietnam), bagoong (Phillippines), and probably more that we haven’t heard of!
These shrimp pastes can vary widely when it comes to salt level, smell, texture, and color.
Some brands even make sweet, regular, and spicy versions, like this Filipino brand:
How Is It Used?
Many Cantonese dishes, most commonly clay pot dishes like stewed eggplant and tofu use shrimp sauce as the primary flavor agent. Pungent and flavorful, these dishes are among our family favorites.
Shrimp sauce can also be used as a condiment for dishes like stir-fried conch with vegetables and fried tofu. The shrimp paste used in these Cantonese dishes is called ham ha, and can be used sparingly. A teaspoon is more than enough for a stir-fry that serves 4.
Another popular form of shrimp paste is belacan in Malaysia. It comes in hard-pressed solid bricks, and is used in many Malaysian dishes. One of our favorites is a simple dish of stir-fried water spinach with shrimp paste.
Buying & Storing
Shrimp paste can be found in Asian markets, especially those with a good selection of Southeast Asian ingredients. It can be one of the more difficult-to-find ingredients in our glossary, but it can be ordered online in a pinch.
Dried shrimp paste does not have to be refrigerated. Store it in an airtight container in a cool, dry place.
Jarred shrimp paste is also salted and fermented, so it will last a while without refrigeration. However, we find this ingredient doesn’t get used as often in our experience, so we like to keep it in the refrigerator to ensure it keeps longer. It can last over a year in the fridge.
Just make sure it is in a tightly sealed container, or you might get a shrimp-scented refrigerator!
Substitutions for Shrimp Paste
Because this is a highly specialized and unique ingredient essential to certain Southeast Asian and Southern Chinese dishes, it’s hard to recommend a particular substitute, especially since shrimp paste often functions as the primary flavor agent in the dishes it’s featured in.
To get a similar flavor in dishes without the paste, you can try frying shrimp heads and shells in oil over medium heat until the oil changes to a bright red color (the longer you fry them, the more flavor you’ll get).
The essence and flavor of the shrimp will transfer to the oil, and you can use the oil to cook your dish. It won’t have that fermented funk, but it’ll be shrimpy! We use a similar method in our shrimp pad thai recipe.
Our Favorite Dishes That Use This Ingredient:
- Char Kway Teow (Malaysian Rice Noodle Stir-fry)
- Khao Soi (Thai Curry Noodle Soup)
If you have further questions about this ingredient, let us know in the comments!