The Umami of Thai Cuisine on Stage
After my last blog post on Southern Thai Red Curry Paste, I realized that this would be an appropriate time to introduce you to an ingredient that is important to making an authentic Thai curry: shrimp paste. In Thailand we call it กะปิ –Kapi. It is the hidden ingredient in most Thai curry pastes, as it is there only in small amounts. Most people can’t detect it, but like fish sauce in Thai soup, it makes a dish rich and robust. A small amount of shrimp paste in the country soup Gaeng Leang makes a good base for a soup, just like dashi does in Japanese soup. Perhaps I will write a blog post at a later time giving you an in-depth look at how shrimp paste is used in Thai cuisine, but for now I will focus on how it is made. Please follow me as I share some firsthand knowledge with you.
At Thai markets you will see big mounds of Kapi; in the supermarket it is packed in plastic tubes. It looks like a muddy, purple-gray paste and has a smell like a powerful blue cheese. The smell may make you pause and wonder why it is so significant to Thai cuisine. Shrimp paste is rich in umami—often referred to as the fifth taste after sweet, sour, bitter and salty. It is often described as savoriness, or “a pleasant brothy or meaty taste with a long lasting, mouthwatering and coating sensation over the tongue.” ((source)) The umami taste is created when the tongue detects components of the compound glutamate, which heightens flavors and creates a sensation of savoriness. The glutamate in fish paste is created by fermentation. Another umami-rich ingredient is Thai fish sauce – น้ำปลา – Nam Pla.
There are two grades of shrimp paste. The finest quality is for making the Thai Chili Dip กะปิน้ำพริก – Kapi Nam Prik and currently sells for about 150 Baht ($4.75) for a kilogram (a little over 2 pounds). The lower grade, which has a deeper flavor, is for incorporating in curries กะปิแกง – Kapi Gaeng. It costs about 90 Baht ($2.85) for a kilogram. My family always uses the premium grade for all dishes calling for shrimp paste.
กะปิ – Shrimp Paste
Shrimp paste is known in Thailand as กะปิ – Kapi. In my home town and many other parts of Thailand it is called เคย – Koey. It is made of กุ้งเคย – goong koey, a crustacean. In some regions, the shrimp paste is made from opossum shrimp which is in the same class as krill, but in a different order of the crustacean family. Shrimp paste is widely made in southeast Asia, but with different methods of fermentation. These result in different looks and they may be called shrimp paste or shrimp sauce. It also has different names in different countries: Hom Ha in Southern China, Belacan in Malaysia, Ngapi in Burma, Bagoong Alamang in the Philippines, and Terasi in Indonesia, to name a few (source). Nevertheless, the use and purpose of shrimp paste in each cuisine is very similar, and it provides a local a source of calcium, phosphorus and iodine.
I was fortunate to have a chance to learn about making shrimp paste in the Kadae fishing village community directly from a Kadae fisherman and shrimp paste artisan at ปากน้ำกะแดะ – Kadae estuary, Kanchanadit, Surathani. The majority of the fishermen and villagers in Kadae are descendants of Chinese immigrants from Hainan Island, China. I had a chance to meet with a few elders and hear fascinating stories of their ancestors.
At the edge of the river, my brother introduced me to Lung Phumipat, a fisherman, and his wife. (Thais call a respectable man whose age is close to their parents’ ages or older uncle – Lung. A woman of the same age is aunt – Pah). Lung and his wife invited us inside their wooden home. I asked them for permission to take photos and notes on making shrimp paste to share with students and blog readers. They showed and taught us as much as they could. We were very appreciative.
Lung Phumipat’s customers are typically neighbors or people who have heard about him by word of mouth. He never gets a chance to sell his shrimp paste at the market because people come to his home to get it or pre-order it.
He said his version of shrimp paste is very simple, but there are still many steps to make a good shrimp paste that he can’t leave out. He told me that after rinsing the fresh กุ้งเคย – goong koey or krill, he mixes it with salt and lets it ferment about 24 hours or a little longer. Then he drains it and spreads out the salted กุ้งเคย – goong koey on a blue nylon net and lets it dry in the sun for a few days. The next important step is pounding the salted, sun-dried shrimp into a fine paste.
The pounding is to turn the sun-dried shrimps into a fine paste and to get rid of air pockets in order to avoid spoilage and provide a safe environment for the fermentation. He pounded it until it was creamy and sticky and formed a dense paste. It was a hard work because the stickiness caused resistance when pulling the pestle. When I tried to use the wooden pestle, Lung Phumipat made sure that I stood straight, held the pestle correctly and pounded the paste near the edge. Standing properly makes the whole process more efficient and prevents injury.
The final step is to place all of the shrimp paste in a container or fermentation jar by adding a small layer at a time and pressing hard to prevent air pockets, repeating this until the jar is filled. Then it is covered and left to ferment for at least two to six months.
This is where Lung Phumipat and his wife have simplified the process. They pack a half kilogram of the paste into a plastic bag, then roll it back and forth to get rid of air pockets, and form the dense shrimp paste into a cylindrical tube. Because the demand for his shrimp paste is so high, he doesn’t get a chance to let his shrimp paste ferment and it is his customer who lets the shrimp paste ferment on the shelf in their kitchen until it is ready to incorporate into a savory Thai dish. The locals know when the shrimp paste is ready. They can identify it by its distinguishing smell at each stage. I simply wrote a note on mine as to its maturity date. There is no expiration date for shrimp paste, but the best way to keep it is to store it in the fridge or freezer in an air-tight jar until it is gone.
Thank you to uncle Phumipat and his wife for their hospitality and the generosity of their time in educating and sharing their culture and their heritage. The time we were with them at Kradae estuary was memorable.
© 2012 Pranee Khruasanit HalvorsenI Love Thai cooking Related articles
- ~Southern Thai Red Curry Paste~ (praneesthaikitchen.com)
- Shrimp Paste History (gastronomica.org)
- The Pad Thai You’re Eating is Garbage (vice.com)
- Is Fish Sauce having its Kale Moment in America (seattletimes.com)
- Andy Ricker’s Kapi Kung – Homemade Shrimp Paste (seriouseats.com)