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Friday, April 14, 2006

Ingredient: Kapi, Thai shrimp paste

Shrimppaste_1

You must be wondering what in the world has possessed me to put a photo of this ugly looking thing on my blog. (And, no, it's not what you think!) Well, you see, I've tried to dress it up. Don't you notice it's in a perfectly formed quenelle, and on my favorite Bernardaud Sardine plate besides? Didn't help much though, did it? Oh well, no matter how I dress it up, it's just ugly old Kapi, or Thai shrimp paste.

And you know what? It is ugly, and it tastes even worse. Well, when eaten out of hand, that is. Yet it is an integral ingredient in so many Thai dishes. It gives a depth of flavor in curry pastes, and plays a starring role in a lot of Namprik relishes. One of my favorite Thai dishes featuring Kapi is Khao Kluk Kapi. The recipe for this is at the end of the post.

I'm not sure if I should tell you how it's made. Perhaps it is, as with sausages, better to just enjoy the result? But then again, this series is about ingredients, so I guess I would have to tell all. Shrimp paste is made from a type of tiny black-eyed shrimps called Keuy. The Keuy shrimps are macerated with a huge amount of salt overnight, then let dry in the sun. The process is repeated for many days until the shrimps disintegrate and dry out completely. The resulting dark paste is the Kapi shrimp paste. It can be kept practically forever.

Different brands of Thai shrimp paste vary in color from light to dark brown, often with a slight purple hue. The consistency is usually firm (see the quenelle above). It has a very pungent smell that might need a little getting used to.

Lower grade shrimp pastes can sometimes be made with bait fish. I don't recommend those. When you buy, make sure that the ingredient list indicates only shrimp and salt. The most common brand sold in the US is Pantainorasingh (the same brand that makes the ubiquitous Roasted Chilli Paste and Sweet Chilli sauce.) But the one I use is called P.Prateeptong. It's a bit harder to find but I prefer it to other brands in the market. The absolute worst brand for shrimp paste is Lee Kum Kee –the color of pale gray with a weirdly sticky yet watery consistency. I usually like Lee Kum Kee sauces, but when I see their shrimp paste I run the other way!!

The process of making shrimp paste might sound a bit scary, especially if you are germ-phobic like me. But I really don’t' think you have much to worry about, most brands of shrimp paste sold outside of Thailand have gone through a process of pasteurization during the packaging. And hardly anything can live in such a highly saline environment in the paste anyway.

In Thailand shrimp pastes are sometimes roasted before use, as much to add flavor as for sanitary purposes. When I cook here in the US, I roast my shrimp paste when it is to be used in a salad or uncooked relish, otherwise I wouldn't bother. Frankly, it's more to ease my phobia than anything else.

There are a couple of ways to roast shrimp paste in a modern kitchen. The easiest is to wrap the paste, patted into a somewhat thin round, in aluminum foil and roast in a 400' oven (toaster ovens are handy for this) for 10 minutes. You can also roast this foil package directly over low flame, but I would wrap it a little bit more securely if you want to do this. If you have banana leaf at your disposal, you can use it in place of foil, and roast the leaf packet until it is all brown and black on the outside. The leaf will add a nice flavor to your paste.

A common way to make Khao Kluk Kapi, the dish I am writing about in this post, calls for tossing rice with Kapi shrimp paste, straight up. Needless to say that can be ever-so-slightly overpowering, not to mention quite an acquired taste. At my house, my grandfather preferred his Khao Kluk Kapi made with not straight shrimp paste, but a type of seasoned shrimp paste called Kapi Kua. I also prefer the latter, as the herbs added in the Kapi Kua give more flavor and complexity to the otherwise plainly salty and pungent rice.

Khaoklookkapi_1Khao Kluk Kapi Kua
Tossed rice with seasoned shrimp paste
Serve 4

2 tbsp Shrimp Paste
2 tbsp shallots, finely chopped
1 tbsp garlic, finely chopped
2 tbsp lemongrass, finely chopped
2 tbsp wild ginger (Grachai), finely chopped (Skip this if you don't have it.)
2 tsp cilantro root, fine chopped
2 tsp galangal, finely chopped
2 tsp kosher salt
5 tbsp oil
1/2 cup coconut milk
5 cups cooked jasmine rice, laid out on a plate to cool
1/2 tbsp sugar
fish sauce to taste

1. In a mortar, pound the shallot, garlic, lemongrass, wild ginger, cilantro root, galangal, and kosher salt together into a very fine paste. Add the shrimp paste and mix well. Set aside.
2. In a large pan over medium heat, add the oil, coconut milk, sugar and the shrimp paste mixture (from #1.) Cook, stirring continuously to prevent burning, for about 2-3 minutes or until everything is fragrant.
3. Add the rice and toss everything together quickly until the rice is evenly coated with the shrimp paste mixture. Taste the seasoning on the rice, depending on how salty your shrimp paste is, you mya or may not need to add a bit of fish sauce.
4. Serve the rice in a large bowl, and all the other garnish in a large platter. Each guest should take some rice and all the other garnish and toss everything together on the plate –perhaps squeeze a bit of lime juice over everything if the mango is not sour enough. Then all that is left to do is eat and enjoy.

Garnish
(Calling these 'garnish' might be a bit of an understatement. These components actually make the dish.)
Shredded green mango
- from 1 large or 2 small mango. Granny Smith apple will do in a pinch.

Sliced shallots
- about 3 shallots

Shredded fried egg
- Take 2 eggs, add 3 tsp of fish sauce, beat well and fry in a medium pan. When the egg is cooked on both sides, roll the fried egg into a log and cut crosswise into thin ribbons.)

Fried dried shrimps
- Take 1/2 cup of dried shrimps, fry in hot oil for a few minutes until brown and crispy. Drain the fried shrimps on a paper towel before serving.

Lime wedges
- to be squeeze over the rice just before eating

Sweet shrimp (or caramelized pork)
- Caramelized pork is a bit more traditional for this dish, but we sometimes use sweet shrimp instead.
- To make the shrimp, take about 500 g or about 3/4 pound of peeled and deveined shrimps, toss with a bit of salt and a couple tablespoons of flour. Fry the shrimps in hot oil until just barely done. Set Aside. In a small pan, cook 80g (3oz) of palm sugar in half a cup of water with two tablespoons of fish sauce and two shallots (thinly sliced). Let boil vigorously until the liquid reduce by half. Tossed the cooked shrimps with the sweet sauce and serve.

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