with apologies to sneff, for stealing his formatting
Much like fish sauce, the Thai kitchen is incomplete without this fermented crustacean product. Generally a
dense, dark purplish to greyish brown, shrimp paste has the sort of intensely pungent odor that you would expect from leaving prawns in the sun. Although generally the paste is stinky, the fresher and higher grades can actually have a pleasant (albeit strong) aroma.
Unlike fish sauce, the production of shrimp paste is artisanal. Fishing families in villages along the coast of Thailand homebrew the product, which is then sold on to market vendors, middlemen, or distributors for packaging and branding. Because each area has its own secret recipe for shrimp paste, the product collected from families and villages in the same vicinity tends to share similar qualities. The paste becomes known by the appellation from whence it came.
To make shrimp paste, firstly the dead shrimp are fermented for a couple of days in the earthenware jars to soften their shells before being placed out to dry in the sun. The drying time for the shrimp depends entirely on their size - the bigger the prawn, the longer the time. During this drying stage, the partially decomposed arthropods are occasionally pounded in a large mortar, then placed out to dry further until they become a fine paste and develop a darker finish. Families will often reserve different grades of the paste, either for themselves or for sale at a higher price. Similar pastes made from shrimp are also used in the cuisine of southern China and other Southeast Asian countries1. These can vary from light pinkish grey and very moist sauces in jars to dark chocolate-brown, firmly compressed blocks. The type used for Thai cooking tends toward the latter.
This is the closest thing that I know to being the national food of Thailand. Apparently when a Thai woman won Miss Universe, to the question "What is your favorite food?", she answered...
Nam Prik Blah Too
(or Pan-Fried Mackerel and Assorted Vegetables with Hot Fermented Shrimp Dipping Sauce)
Find a friendly fishmonger to clean mackerel; rinse well, and drain. Rub evenly with a little salt, and let sit at least twenty minutes at room temperature before frying.
In a small, dry pan, roast dried shrimp over medium heat for several minutes, stirring frequently, until they have browned and become brittle and very fragrant. Cool a few minutes, then pound into a coarse powder with a mortar and pestle. Transfer to a small sauce dish.
Wrap shrimp paste in a piece of banana leaf/aluminium foil and roast over the flames of a gas burner, holding the packet with a pair of tongs (or place directly on the heated coil of an electric burner). Turn frequently until leaf is charred and the heady smell of prawn is pronounced (about 5 to 10 minutes).
Cool for a couple of minutes, then peel back charred leaf or foil.
Pound the garlic and half the chillies in the mortar until pasty. Add roasted shrimp paste and powdered roasted dried shrimp and pound together to blend. Add lime juice, sugar, and remaining chillies, stir well, and adjust flavors to make a sauce that is intensely hot, salty, sour, and slightly sweet. (If it is not salty enough, you sodium freak, add a little fish sauce. Shrimp paste is often up to 50% salt). Set aside.
Prepare vegetables! Trim and cut beans into about 2-inch segments. Snap water spinach into shorter segments. Cut bitter melon in half lengthwise, scoop out the seeds, and slice crosswise into 1/4-inch pieces. Slice the long eggplant at a sharp angle into 1/4-inch ovals. Spare the knives on the okra, leave it whole.
Bring 1 1/2 quarts water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Add 2 teaspoons sea salt. Blanch all of the vegetables but the eggplant until they are vibrant green and lightly cooked. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain.
Dip oval eggplant pieces in beaten egg one piece at a time, and pan-fry in a small amount of oil in a flat skillet until browned on both sides and softened. Arrange vegetables in separate piles on a splendorous platter.
Heat oil in a wok over high heat until it begins to smoke. Swirl to coat wok surface. Pat mackerel dry all over (including the body cavity! Don't be shy..it's a dead fish!) and dust lightly with tapioca starch or cornstarch. Fry in the hot oil for 3 to 5 minutes on each side (depending on size of fish), or until they are browned and cooked through. Transfer to your splendorous platter.
Serve the lightly cooked vegetables and pan-fried mackerel with the fermented shrimp dipping sauce and a bucket of plain, steamed rice.
see also: kapi
1. Sneff mentioned to me that an an interchangeable product is found all over southeast Asia..."We have the Burmese (ngapi), the Indonesian (trasi), The Malay (blachan) and phew...the Vietnamese (mam tom)".
Thanks also to anthropod for the Thai spelling tips.