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Shrimp paste, or shrimp sauce, is similar to fish sauce and used most often for seasoning dishes or creating a sauce or dip. It comes from Southeast Asia and the southern parts of China. Each area has a different name for it and makes the paste slightly differently from the rest, but the basic procedure and ingredients are the same. It has a strong, fishy odor until it is mixed with other ingredients and is cooked. It is typically meant to add a hint of flavor and is not used in large quantities when added to food.
To create shrimp paste, the producer must mix together shrimp and salt. He then waits for the shrimp to start fermenting, a process helped along by the added salt, and afterward will grind up the mixture into a thick paste. Next he places the mixture out in the sun to allow it time to dry. Depending on how the paste is made, it can be a thin liquid or a thick block. Colors range from light pink to dark brown.
It is necessary to cook the shrimp paste before eating; it should not be eaten raw. It makes an excellent source of vitamin B and protein. Cooks may use it in many different ways depending on their cooking style and preferences. This ranges from mixing it with food for a strong shrimp taste to simply creating a flavorful dipping sauce. Adding the extra ingredients and cooking the shrimp paste helps eliminate the unpleasant odor.
There are many variations of shrimp paste, depending on the country that uses it. Indonesian shrimp paste goes by the name "terasi," while in Filipino it is called "bagoong alamang." Its similarities to fish sauce come from the process. Both use the process of fermentation to create the sauce or paste. The major difference seen in fish sauce is its thin, liquid consistency and how it is served in bottles and not in thick blocks.
When using shrimp paste in dishes for the first time, cooks should follow a traditional recipe. Adding too much can create an overpowering flavor that ruins the sauce or dip. While some cooks may not want to store the paste in their kitchens, others will find that substituting other seasoning in place of the paste does not create the same distinct flavor found in the original dish. A cook may store the paste somewhere where its smell is less noticeable.
I didn't think there was any where to buy shrimp paste locally in my city, but I eventually found it in an Asian food supermarket. I only wanted it for one particular shrimp paste chicken recipe, but I've ended up using it in a few different Thai curry recipes. At first I only used a very very small amount, but I've gradually increased that as we got used to the taste.
It's a very unique taste, that I recognize sometimes now when we are in restaurants. It kind of makes me proud to know that I'm using what seems like kind of an obscure ingredient regularly at home.
You really want to be careful when using shrimp paste in your Thai recipes. It can be very strong, and you shouldn't try to taste it before it is cooked into the meal, because it might not be safe.
I would suggest, if you haven't used that kind of paste before, adding a very small amount, letting it cook for a few minutes at a high heat, then tasting it. This way you can safely judge how much more to add.
Different shrimp pastes have different intensities and the only way to tell how strong your paste is is by using it.