Ingredient: Kapi, Thai shrimp paste


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.

(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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24 Responses to “Ingredient: Kapi, Thai shrimp paste

  • Gerald said:
    April 14th, 2006 at 1:52pm

    Know what’s even uglier? Filipino shrimp paste. I believe its almost the same as Kapi, except it is processed to a less degree, so the little shrimp eyeballs and bodies are still visible and the texture is like oatmeal. It has the same pungent taste, but less of a smoky note.

  • theguiltycarnivore said:
    April 15th, 2006 at 12:07am

    i match your ugly and raise you a vietnamese shrimp paste. i’m not talking about fresh shrimp pastes that floats in Bun Rieu soup or the shrimp paste plodded on the end of a sugarcane, but the condiment.
    it’s tepidly gray and has the consistency of freshly mixed concrete sludge. it’s on the other end of the spectrum – this is very processed to a slurry-like consistency, as if it was pulverized in a garbage disposal.
    but now that i’ve reread your description of filipino shrimp paste, i’ll have to reconsider…

  • faustianbargain said:
    April 15th, 2006 at 5:35am

    yo pim! sorry to barge in with a unrelated comment. it’s more like a question, actually…does thai cooking use neem blossoms? we do in south india and i vaguely remember someone telling me that thai grocery stores carry dried neem blossoms. can you confirm? we are having a discussion here >

  • slurp! said:
    April 15th, 2006 at 6:12am

    ha! juz got back from BKK songkran, so i got to know kapi is part of the Khao Chae set. they are rolled into small balls and lightly fried. it don’t smell pungent when cooked and taste, in fact, savory sweet; goes very well with the rice.
    i saw the various type of kapi @ Dumnernsaduak floating market. and oh boy, i wouldn’t stand near them for more then a few seconds 😛 at that point of time, i was wondering how they going to eat those stuffs hehehe …
    so finally, a good post to educate me about kapi 🙂 thks!

  • Bestvnteas said:
    April 15th, 2006 at 11:12am

    Wow, this article brings me back to my homeland. No, it’s not Thailand. It’s the neighboring country, Vietnam.
    We have our own version of shrimp paste. The process of making it could be the same, thou.
    It’s been over thirty years since I had shrimp paste. If I recall correctly, it’s a great flavoring ingredient, but eating it by itself is not appealing at all.
    Takes One to Know One,
    Smart Cookies for Smart People

  • Barbara Fisher said:
    April 16th, 2006 at 7:22am

    Shrimp paste and fish sauce are the two ingredients that American students new to Thai cooking most want to “leave out” of Thai dishes.
    And they are the two ingredients I always put my foot down about and say, “Absolutely not! They have to stay in, or it won’t taste right.” The only folks allowed to leave them out and substitute are strict vegetarians, those who are strictly kosher or those who are allergic to fish and shellfish.
    But they are the ingredients that when I bring them out and start talking about them and pass them around for people to experience, that folks get all squiggly about.
    Then, they taste the food afterwards, and all of their fear seems to melt away….

  • ExtraMSG said:
    April 16th, 2006 at 10:30am

    I often microwave shrimp paste until it’s fragrant. I’ll put it on for 30 seconds at a time and then mix it around. However, make sure you cover the bowl or whatever you heat it in because it will pop and shoot all over. And if you’re worried about germs, the irradiating takes care of that better than roasting.

  • Pim said:
    April 17th, 2006 at 12:35am

    Gerald, the guitycarnivore, and Bestvnteas: Yeah, I guess I’ll defer to you on what’s the ultimate in ugliness. Ha. I’ve never used either one though, I’ll look for them next time I’m at an Asian market.
    faustian: Yes, we use Neem Blossoms, mostly uncooked and as an accompaniment to spicy relishes.
    Slurp: Yes, that kapi in Khao Chae is called Kapi Kua, which is very much like the Kapi mixture in this recipe, except with some dried fish in it.
    Barbara: You go girl. Don’t let those whimps get away with it. Ha!
    ExtraMSG: I’m not keen on what nuking does to the texture of shrimp paste, actually. I prefer roasting which I think adds a little bit of smoky flavor to the paste.

  • Jeff said:
    April 18th, 2006 at 12:41pm

    How long does shrimp paste last? Looks like it could be an interesting addition to dishes if a small amount was kept on hand 🙂

  • Mike said:
    April 20th, 2006 at 10:20am

    Anybody here have any luck finding kapi in the Bay area, preferably San Francisco?

  • Pim said:
    April 24th, 2006 at 1:58am

    Jeff: it will last pretty much forever in the fridge. I’ll throw it out if it grows mold or something funky, but otherwise it will last a long long time.
    Mike: May Wah on Clement is where I usually buy mine.

  • wandernut said:
    April 28th, 2006 at 2:06am

    Yums! This recipe sounds like a Malaysian dish using toasted shrimp paste (called belacan here), tossed with rice, toasted shredded coconut, local herbs (including the ones in your recipe), and toasted dried shrimp. The dish is called nasi ulam. Lovely when served with half a hard-boiled salted egg! 🙂

  • Victoria said:
    January 5th, 2007 at 5:22pm

    Hi Pim,
    First of all, I love your blog. I found it when searching for a recipe of rice with Kapi Kua, and I have been returning ever since. In fact, I just made this dish for dinner, and it was delicious. I love the interplay of textures and flavours, which is why the Thai cuisine attracts me in general. I read and re-read your entries on eating in Bangkok–great writing! As someone who writes professionally about the subject matter of flavour and fragrance, I loved your approach and your vivid way of rendering the images of what you have seen and eaten. I look forward to reading more of your writing both here and in other publications.

  • Mr. Josef said:
    July 15th, 2007 at 8:35pm

    How to make shrimp paste as well? I don’t know if their raw materials came from dried shrimp yet. Please give me some information. Thank you.

  • A.T. said:
    August 5th, 2007 at 7:29pm

    Kapi looks almost pretty compared to this stuff they sell in the supermarkets. It’s called Chin chia loke (or so it sounds to my ears) and is made of some kind of fermented shrimp. It’s grey, sticky-ish, liquidy with the tiny shrimp left whole and the whole thing is dotted with the tiny black shrimp eyes. It’s supposed to be yummy as a condiment with sambal and lime but I’ll pass.

  • Jonathan Kandell said:
    September 10th, 2007 at 7:47am

    Where in the world do you find cilantro with root on it? Can you use stem instead?

  • josie said:
    July 29th, 2008 at 12:16pm

    on a similar note–do you know where I can buy crab paste–the one that is totally black and not the crab paste in soya bean oil that one often finds? I use this black crab paste in papaya salad lao style and haven’t been able to find it…online or local stores. thanks so much!

  • convection toaster oven said:
    April 5th, 2010 at 4:29am

    That was overwhelming! Thanks for the counsel! I even did a review on my website! Why am I using exclamation marks far and wide!

  • Christine said:
    October 20th, 2011 at 4:43pm

    mmm…this dish sounds yummy!  I love shrimp paste!  do you have a pic of the P.Prateeptong shrimp paste you mentioned?  want to see if I can find it.

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  • Nat said:
    January 11th, 2013 at 12:29am

    I am looking forward to a video to this brilliant write-up!

  • nicole said:
    January 12th, 2015 at 6:49pm

    hello, I’ve recently started cooking thai food and i’d like to know the difference between the shrimp paste in soybean oil and the straight up paste? If i use the one in soybean oil (for a curry for example) is it bad? also in my asian shops, i could only find vietnamese shrimp paste, is it better than using the one in soybean oil? Thanks!

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