What is Shrimp Paste?

How to Buy & Use Shrimp Paste

Shrimp paste drying outside
Marcel Ekkel/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

What is Shrimp Paste?

Shrimp paste (also known as 'shrimp sauce', 'kapi', 'trassi' or 'bagoong aramang') is a strong-smelling, very salty pink paste commonly used as a cooking ingredient in many Southeast-Asian dishes. Traditionally, shrimp paste is made from ground up shrimp which is then fermented under a hot sun (see photo). Sometimes it is even formed into dried blocks before being sold. Shrimp paste can also be made by roasting and grinding shrimp at home, but it is a laborious process and is much easier to buy ready-made at the store.

Shrimp paste can be either very dry and firm (traditional Thai style) or moist and saucy. I prefer the latter for ease of preparation. Also, this is the type commonly sold in regular North American supermarkets (for example: Lee Kum Kee Shrimp Sauce.).

Shrimp Paste Ingredients/Contents:

Shrimp paste contains ground up fermented and salt. Some imported Thai shrimp pastes may have preservatives added as well, but most of the brands packaged and sold here in North America contain only fermented shrimp and salt. It is pasteurized for purity and then 'canned' and sold in jars or plastic tubs.

Where Do I Buy Shrimp Paste?

Shrimp paste (or 'shrimp sauce' as some brands call it) is available in the Asian section of larger supermarket chains throughout North America (with the soy and fish sauces). If you can't find it there, look for it at an Asian/Chinese grocery store. See the second photo shown here to see what the jar looks like, or go to this page: Lee Kum Kee Shrimp Sauce.

Substitutions for Shrimp Paste

Shrimp paste can be substituted with fish sauce, golden mountain sauce (this one is vegetarian), or a good vegetarian stir-fry sauce (I like Lee Kum Kee Stir-Fry Sauce - have used it a lot for my vegetarian sister). If you are following a recipe that calls for shrimp paste, use this equation: 1/2 tsp.

shrimp paste = 1 Tbsp. fish sauce, OR golden mountain sauce, OR vegetarian stir-fry sauce. In a pinch, you can also substitute soy sauce, but you'll find the dish may taste weak or turn out too dark in color.

Health Issues

Shrimp paste isn't the healthiest product in the world, simply because our seas are not as clean as they used to be, and shrimp paste is basically just shrimp in a concentrated, condensed form with plenty of salt added. It is very salty, in fact. My husband and I both have a tendency to suffer from heartburn, and I've noticed the only time this happens with my cooking is when I use shrimp paste/sauce. Hence, we have stopped using it (see my substitutions list). Many  Thai recipes can be made either by omitting it OR by using a substitution, and they turn out just as good. If you are pregnant, suffer from heartburn, or are on a reduced salt diet, I don't recommend using shrimp paste. Enjoying a traditional Thai dish out at a restaurant is alright on occasion, but you may want to pick and choose your restaurants according to how well or poorly you feel after the meal. I prefer to make my own Thai meals at home, or only go to select, highly recommended restaurants. There are also quite a number of good vegetarian/vegan Thai restaurants in the US and Canada as well as in Thailand, and these do not use any shrimp paste whatsoever.

Calories/Nutritional Information

1 tsp. shrimp paste contains 5 calories, 0.15g total fat (cholesterol = 8.2g), 340mg salt, 1g protein, 2% calcium, and 2.2% iron.

How Do I Use Shrimp Paste in My Cooking?

First, let me just say that I prefer the Lee Kum Kee Shrimp Sauce or a similar 'saucy' shrimp paste because it's easy to find at regular supermarkets and doesn't contain preservatives. Also, it isn't as strong-tasting as traditional Thai shrimp paste and is easier to blend into your cooking because it's saucy, not dry. If you do buy the more traditional Thai shrimp paste and find that it is very dry, be sure to stir it well into your hot curry sauce or whatever you are cooking. If using it in a salad, you will need to stir well to dissolve it completely (a chunk of shrimp paste in a dish tastes way too salty and isn't a pleasant thing!).

Otherwise, shrimp paste is simple to use: just add it and stir to blend, following a good recipe of course. Here are some tried and tried ones:

Recipes with Shrimp Paste: