A Lamentation for Shrimp Paste | Su-Mei Yu

from Gastronomica 9:3

I have been cooking with shrimp paste for decades. But it wasn’t until two years ago, on a visit to Thailand, that I was able to see for myself just how elaborate the process of making it is. I happened to be with my friend Suwanna and her nephew Juk in a neighborhood where one of the best shrimp pastes in Thailand is sold. But the hour was late, and the normally bustling street was quiet; the shop house itself was completely dark. But that didn’t daunt Juk. He jumped out of the car and began rattling the shop house door. Soon a chorus of dogs was barking, and a shaft of light streamed out through the metal bars. A shadowy figure slid the door open just wide enough for the slender young man to slip through.

As we waited outside, Suwanna told me about the old woman who sold this famous shrimp paste. She called her Pa (Aunt) Liam. Once renowned for her beauty, Pa Liam married a rich man who turned out to be alcoholic and abusive. As a child Suwanna frequently saw Pa Liam with her face black and blue and swollen. Some thirty years ago, Pa Liam’s husband suddenly died, and it was then that Pa Liam was free to live her life. Today, she is known near and far for the excellent shrimp paste she sells. “Wait until you taste it,” Suwanna said.


Above: Ta daeng or “red-eye” shrimp paste. Photograph by Su-Mei Yyu © 2008

Moments later, Juk reappeared with a big grin and two large plastic bags. Unable to contain herself, Suwanna loosened one of the rubber bands. A sultry smell of sea air and sun-baked sand immediately filled the car. Suwanna pinched off a tiny piece and offered it to me. An intensely briny flavor flooded my mouth.

Shrimp Paste in History

Back home in San Diego, whenever I used a bit of this special shrimp paste, Pa Liam’s story tugged at my heart, and each whiff increased my obsession with this ancient ingredient. 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 South and Southeast Asia, including southeastern India, the Chinese province of Hainan, and the regions now known as Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka. These communities harvested newly hatched shrimp, salted them, and spread them out on bamboo mats to dry in the sun. Sun-dried paste could be preserved for months, if not years, making it an ideal cooking ingredient for the tropics, where most fresh items spoil quickly in the heat.

Unlike their coastal neighbors, the medieval forebears of the Siamese pioneered a cooking paste made from river fish rather than shrimp. These inlanders migrated from China to present-day Thailand, settling on land close to rivers. Until the time of the first Siam kingdom (the Sukhothai Kingdom established in 1238), they, along with their Laotian neighbors, employed a process similar to that used for making shrimp paste elsewhere. They combined tiny, fresh river fish called kaphot with roasted rice grains and salt and placed the mixture in large earthen jars to sit in the sun for many months, even up to a year. The fish decomposed into a mushy substance known as pla (fish) dnay (pickled)—fermented fish paste. After King Ramkhamhaeng of Sukhothai occupied Pattani in the fourteenth century, shrimp paste (kapi) became available, although it was reserved mainly for aristocrats. Ordinary people continued to cook with fermented fish paste or fish sauce (nam pla). Shrimp paste remained a rare and precious seasoning, and cooks from noble households used it to create a new culinary repertoire.

Beginning in the sixteenth century, the accounts of travelers to this region were highly derogatory, claiming that the local inhabitants ate “rotten” food unfit for cooking or eating. Most notable among these critics was a Persian diplomat named Ibn Muhammad Ibrahim, who had arrived in Siam in 1666 with an entourage of cooks. He established a grand kitchen much envied by the Siamese ruler King Narai, who made frequent requests for the loan of Ibrahim’s cooks for his state banquets. Yet, unlike King Narai with his admiration for Persian cuisine, Muhammad Ibrahim described the Siamese and their food with contempt.

A more objective foreigner was Simon de La Loubère, a French diplomat appointed by King Louis XIV to the Royal Court of Siam in 1687. Although de La Loubère spent a mere four months in the country, he kept a meticulous journal documenting the Thai people’s cultural, social, and political history. 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 cray fish corrupted, because they are ill salted; they called it Capi.” 1

My friend Suthon Sukphisit, a Thai food historian, believes that de La Loubère’s description may have been inaccurate. What he called crayfish was more likely the tiny fish kaphot. Therefore capi (kapi), or shrimp paste, might actually have been pla dnay, or fermented fish paste. Sukphisit explains that the people of Ayutthaya were partial to local river fish and disliked fish from the sea, finding their smell “bad” and texture coarse. Thus they much preferred fermented fish paste and fish sauce to shrimp paste for cooking. Besides, the distance from the sea to the inland city of Ayutthaya, where most people lived, was a rough two-day journey, which meant that shrimp paste would not have been a common ingredient.

It wasn’t until the eighteenth century that shrimp paste replaced pla dnay as a favored ingredient essential to Siamese cooking; only the people in northeastern and northern Siam continued to favor fermented fish paste, whose name morphed from pla dnay to pla rah. Today, shrimp paste is commonly used in Thailand as a binder for seasoning soups, savory stew-like dishes, and stir-fries. A tablespoon of shrimp paste mixed and pounded with cloves of garlic, fiery fresh chilies, palm sugar, fish sauce, and lime juice yields a dipping sauce for vegetables and grilled fish. The nineteenth-century Siamese King Chulalongkhorn, known as a connoisseur, favored a commoner’s dish called khao krug kapi, made by mixing steamed rice with a spoonful of fragrant shrimp paste to turn each grain light purple in color. Garnished with fried dried shrimp, chili flakes, shallots, lime juice, and thin slices of omelet, simple rice became complex and exciting.

Shrimp paste is so vital to Thai cooking that my own kitchen would not be complete without it. There are many grades, depending on the size and uniformity of the shrimp. The best pastes exude the scent of warm sea air, while lesser products give off an acrid smell. Top-quality shrimp paste is made only with newly hatched shrimp and the purest salt from local flats. After harvesting, the shrimp must be rinsed repeatedly in seawater to rid it of foreign objects. The proportions of shrimp and salt remain the paste maker’s secret. Ultimately, it is the sun that turns the mixture of fresh shrimp and coarse salt into a high-quality shrimp paste with subtle flavor. Every paste maker hopes for at least five to seven consecutive days of intense sunlight to dry the shrimp. The longer the paste is left to dry in the sun, the less intense its odor, but the more refined its taste. Nevertheless, in response to a new generation of Thais who find shrimp paste’s strong smell offensive, several paste makers now add fresh coconut water to the mixture. This gives the paste hom, a fragrant scent that alters its intense, salty taste.

Discriminating Thai cooks buy shares of shrimp paste from villagers they have come to know, asking the maker to reserve premium pastes made at the end of the rainy season or at the beginning of the cool season. Alternatively, Thais seek out traditional markets, where they buy from vendors they have come to trust. The vendors shape the paste into large mounds, which they sell in enamel bowls; less expensive pastes are packaged in plastic containers. The color of shrimp paste varies. Pa Liam’s paste is brownish-burgundy, with a smooth, creamy texture. She gives it the poetic name of ta dum, “black eyes,” in reference to the many visible pin-sized specks in the paste—once the eyes of the shrimp. Lesser-quality paste using more mature shrimp is often slightly pink and is called huung daeng for “red tail” or ta daeng for “red eye.” Other pastes, made from a mixture of shrimp and other microorganisms harvested from the shallow water close to shore, are dark brown in color.

Making the Paste

Suwanna had arranged for us to meet Pa Liam in the town of Phetchaburi the next day. Finally I would learn how to make shrimp paste! As we approached, the dogs began to bark. An elderly woman in a thin, white, cotton blouse and a sarong came slowly forward, pushing an office chair on rollers. She peered through the bars and squeezed her eyes shut, temporarily disoriented by the bright sun. Shielding her eyes with one hand, with the other she gathered loose strands of snowy white hair into a haphazard bun. When she opened her eyes and saw Suwanna, a smile spread over her face. She undid the large lock and loosened a heavy chain that held the door panels together. As Pa Liam pushed the door open, the barking dogs raced out into the street.

With Suwanna as go-between, Pa Liam spoke easily about her life. She was born in Ban Bang Taboon, a fishing village about ten kilometers from Phetchaburi. Her uncle occasionally fished for freshly hatched shrimp, which he would salt and set out to dry in the sun. I asked Pa Liam if she had learned how to make shrimp paste from her uncle. She laughed and said, “I don’t make it. I just sell it.” Her answer disappointed me terribly—I had wanted to learn the process. But Pa Liam continued her story. After getting married, she moved to Phetchaburi. Following the tradition of Thai women, she decided to earn her own income even though she had married a rich man. She opened a shop selling rice grown by local farmers. Whenever she visited her family, she would bring back shrimp paste for her own use. Years later, when her daughters came home from university in Bangkok to visit, she would give them shrimp paste to take back. They in turn shared the paste with their friends, who begged for more. And so Pa Liam began to sell it commercially.

Pa Liam continued to reminisce until a couple of middle-aged women arrived, at which point Suwanna abruptly got up, thanked Pa Liam for her time, and nudged me toward the door. Pa Liam suddenly grew agitated. She grabbed a cane and tried to stand up. As Suwanna hurried me out the door, I cried, “But where can I learn to make shrimp paste?” “Ban Bang Taboon,” Pa Liam repeated, naming the village of her birth several times. “Just go to Ban Bang Taboon, and you’ll find plenty of kapi makers.”

As we drove away, Suwanna apologized for our sudden departure. One of the women who had entered the room was Pa Liam’s eldest daughter, an old schoolmate of hers. The daughter suffered from mental illness, and Suwanna was occasionally a target of her violent fits; she didn’t want to take that chance today. “Poor Pa Liam, her life is plagued with sadness and disappointment,” she lamented. “As for you, we will look for shrimp-paste makers in Ban Bang Taboon.”

And so Suwanna and I journeyed to Pa Liam’s coastal village. We passed through green rice fields, groves of tall sugar palms, and salt flats before driving into a sleepy town with modest shop houses sandwiched in between weather-beaten wooden shacks thatched with palm fronds. On one side of a dusty street a couple of immense homes stood fortified by thick brick walls, as if mistakenly transplanted from a California suburb. In the wide gravel driveway of one house leaned a large, crudely written sign: “Fresh shrimp paste for sale.” A nearby house had a messy front yard with several metal tables, plastic basins, and earthen jars scattered about. As I stepped out of the car, the familiar smell of salted, dried fish hit me hard. I walked over to the tables. Some were caked with a dark burgundy mass over which flies buzzed in the hot, humid air.

An overweight woman in her thirties came from the back of the house. Suwanna asked whether anyone was making shrimp paste. She smiled and said we were in luck—her husband had just returned from harvesting shrimp. He was preparing a new batch on his boat, and she invited us to watch.

We followed the woman to the side of the house, where several wooden boats were stacked neatly on top of one another. Beyond the boats flowed a tributary lined with dense mangrove forests. A deeply tanned young man wearing a floppy cloth hat and holding a bright blue, plastic pail stood inside one of the boats. I asked permission to join him. He nodded his assent with a broad smile and introduced himself as Boon. In the bottom of Boon’s pail was a gelatinous, light gray mass—tiny shrimp, no more than ten cupfuls, a full day’s harvest. He sifted through the pail with his hand, picking out rocks and unwanted particles. He then slid the mass into a large plastic bag and dipped it into the tributary before hoisting it back onto the boat. After shaking the bag several times, Boon let it rest for a minute before carefully draining the water. He then transferred the shrimp back into the pail and sifted through it again. Boon repeated this process several more times until he was certain that only shrimp remained in the pail. He then poured the mass into a very fine, plastic mesh strainer, tapping it lightly against the boat to rid it of water. He scooped up a couple handfuls of coarse salt from a nearby bucket and mixed it with the shrimp, again tapping the strainer lightly against the boat until no more water dripped through the mesh. Boon explained that if he were doing this on a very hot, sunny day, the shrimp would turn pink within minutes. Now, because it was overcast and already late, he would wait until the next day to spread the mass out to dry. “Let’s just hope it won’t rain,” he said. Rain is the worst enemy, causing the drying shrimp to grow sour and rot.

We stepped off the boat and walked over to one of the metal tables in the yard. Boon pinched off a piece of the dark burgundy paste I had noticed earlier. It had been drying in the sun for several days. Boon spread the paste over his fingers, showing me how smooth and uniform it was. It had taken ten kilos of fresh shrimp to make a single kilo of this exquisite paste.

I asked if I could buy some shrimp paste from him. Boon shook his head “no.” All of his shrimp paste had already been spoken for. Even so, business was not as good as it had been. He struggled to harvest enough of the hatch-ling shrimp to make a decent batch of paste. In recent years hundreds of hectares of forest along the bay have been clear-cut to make room for commercial shrimp farms. Pollution from waste, chemicals, and artificial feed are killing off mangroves. As a result, to harvest wild shrimp fisherman must now travel farther out into the bay, stay longer at sea, and spend more of their profits on fuel. Boon spoke wistfully. His wife comes from an old fishing family that has been making shrimp paste for more than a hundred years. But his will be the last generation to do so, he believes, since he doubts that his children can earn a living from the sea.

“We can’t compete with factories that don’t care what they use for their shrimp paste,” he explained. “They mix fish, different-sized small shrimp, and sometime bigger-size shrimp together.” Boon walked over to a large, pinkish spread and pinched off a bit for me to see. Where the tiny shrimp he had prepared for his paste were invisible to the eye, here I could see specks of whitish, whole dried shrimp among the pink mass. This was the low-grade “red eye.”

In the past, coastal Thai villagers were able to make high-quality shrimp paste because the beaches were not so congested with tourists. But increased human traffic along with more commercial fishing has damaged both the ocean’s ecosystem and the livelihoods of the villagers, especially those who depend on the minute shrimp that are rapidly disappearing from the local waters. Boon now has no choice but to make some lesser-quality shrimp paste. “Customers want to buy our shrimp paste. We warn them that not every batch is the same,” he confessed. Most customers seem not to care, but some give him money in advance to reserve whatever good paste he is able to make. Boon suggested that I try to buy paste made in Petchaburi. I immediately mentioned Pa Liam, and his face lit up. “Pa Liam is our customer! She has been buying our shrimp paste for at least thirty years. In fact, her latest order could not be filled because we don’t have enough to sell.”

Boon explained that Pa Liam’s family, like many others, no longer makes their own shrimp paste. Elderly Thais do not want to go out to sea to harvest shrimp. Boon will do it as long as he can. He looks forward to going out on the water, hugging the mangroves and hoping for a good harvest. Making shrimp paste gives him freedom and the pleasure of being alone, something he will miss when the ocean can no longer provide a decent catch for shrimp paste. Boon believes that this ancient tradition and way of life will disappear with his generation. “Savor the taste of the good shrimp paste you have,” he told me before Suwanna and I left. “One of these days it will be no more than a dream.”

notes

1. Simon de La Loubère, A New Historical Relation of the Kingdom of Siam (London: F.L. for Tho. Horne at the Royal Exchange, Francis Saunders at the New England, and Tho. Bennet at the Half-Moon in St. Pauls Church-yard, 1693), 35–36.

2 thoughts on “A Lamentation for Shrimp Paste | Su-Mei Yu

  • Thank you for your research and story; as time goes on and the pressure of modern change mounts it is to be hoped that some of the old ways – where ever they remain – can be preserved.

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  • I really enjoyed this article. You are an engaging writer and it’s a great story. I dream of traveling the world and learning traditional fermentation processes, but until then, I’d love to use you as a conduit 🙂 Do you have more details about the full process?

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