As with fish sauce, no true Thai kitchen is quite complete without shrimp paste – kapi (also transliterated at gkapbi or gabi) – the dense, dark purplish and greyish brown, fermented shrimp paste with an intensely pungent odor, which most unaccustomed westerners find overpowering and even repulsive.
If you think that fish sauce is quite enough and no way are you ever going to be talked into eating this rotten-smelling stuff, think again. Just about every delicious Thai curry you’ve ever had, has kapi as a vital component; this strong character blends beautifully with the robust flavors of chillies, garlic, fragrant spices, pungent roots and aromatic herbs to make each curry a delightful whole. In addition, there are many spicy soups, salads, sauces and stir-fries that
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In one form or another, kapi makes its mark in just about every Thai meal, and especially among villagers in the Thai countryside, there is hardly one that would be complete without some kind of nahm prik (hot and spicy dipping sauces for vegetables and fish) in which this shrimpy paste simply shines. A favorite nahm prik is named after it (nahm prik kapi) since it is the primary ingredient; accompanying pan-fried, local gulf mackerel (bplah too) and raw, blanched and egg-dipped-and-fried vegetables, this humble food of peasant origins undisputedly constitutes one of Thailand’s favorite foods – popular among both poor and rich. In fact, when one of Thailand’s beauties won the Miss Universe title, her answer to the question “What’s your favorite food?” delighted Thais around the country when she without hesitation named this combination of nahm prik, mackerel and vegetables (nahm prik bplah too).
Like fish sauce, kapi is rich in protein, B vitamins, calcium and iodine. Also like fish sauce, not all kapi is the same and can vary quite a bit in color, aroma and quality. Though much of it is rather smelly, reminding one of rotting shrimp, the fresher and higher grades can actually have a pleasant, albeit strong, aroma. Some of the best can be found in the bustling markets and roadside stalls of several seaside towns known for their seafood products; and each chance I find to vacation on the southern coast back home, I can’t resist picking up a supply for my kitchen. When I run short, I favor a brand imported into America called Klong Kohn; Tra Chang (also of fish sauce fame) is also good. Both have a distinct smoky aroma, reminiscent of roasted shrimp, and when combined with other robust Thai ingredients, a little bit of the concentrated paste goes a long way to adding a whole lot of delicious shrimpy flavor.
Unlike fish sauce, shrimp paste is still mostly made by fishing families in villages along the coast, then sold to market vendors for resale to consumers, or to middlemen and distributors, who package them into containers with their brand names on them. Because each area has its own way of making shrimp paste, the product collected from families and villages in the same vicinity tends to share similar qualities. Kapi, therefore, becomes known by the province or village from where it comes.
My husband and I once visited a small village known for the quality of its kapi, made from miniscule white shrimp, known as keuy, smaller even than a housefly. Fishing boats leave for sea in the morning and return in late afternoon with their catch. The sleepy village suddenly awakens, as the shrimp are unloaded, rinsed, laid out to drain before salting (approximately 1 cup sea salt to two pounds of shrimp), then filled into earthenware jars overnight.
The next morning, they are spread out on plastic or fiberglass mats on the ground or on platforms next to the fishermen’s simple wooden homes to dry in the hot tropical sun. Late in the day, they are gathered and re-stored in the jars for the night, to be laid out again the next day when the sun burns hot. This goes on for three or more days, until the shrimp disintegrate and dry from pink to a dark purplish brown. When the shrimp are no longer recognizable and completely turned into dense paste, the kapi is ready for use and is returned to the earthen jars until an agent comes by to collect it. The shrimp paste gathered from all the families in the village is mounded into enormous, colorful plastic tubs, each weighing several hundred kilograms when filled. If properly dried, the paste can keep for several months without refrigeration.
To make kapi from larger shrimp, the shrimp are allowed to ferment for a few days in the earthen jars to soften their shells before placing out to dry in the sun. The drying takes longer, the number of days or weeks dependent on the size of the shrimp. During the drying stage, partially decomposed shrimp are periodically put through a grinder, or pounded in a large mortar, then placed out to dry further until they become a fine paste and develop the dark finished color.
The agent keeps the different grades made from different kinds of shrimp in separate, color-coded tubs. Even though we were surrounded by huge mounds of paste, several tons in all, we were amazed how we barely noticed the stench of fermenting shrimp, unless we put our noses right up close to the paste. That day, we bought a few kilograms of the best grade from the village to give as gifts to family and friends for a mere pittance; stalls along the major highway nearby sell the same grade for double the price; and by the time it makes its way into Bangkok, the price would have climbed a lot more.
Similar pastes made from shrimp are also used in the cooking of southern China and other Southeast Asian countries. These can vary from light pinkish grey and very moist, fluid-like sauces in jars to dark chocolate-brown, firmly compressed blocks. The kind used for Thai cooking leans toward the latter. Since other Asian cultures use shrimp paste differently in their cooking and prefer different strengths, it is best to purchase a product from Thailand for use in Thai dishes.
Kapi from Thailand usually comes packaged in small plastic containers, labeled as “shrimp paste” and listing shrimp and salt as the only two ingredients. Most brands cover the top of the paste with a layer of wax to seal in freshness; remove before using. When refrigerated after opening, it will keep indefinitely. Because different batches vary in saltiness and shrimpiness, make adjustments as necessary in the recipes that call for it.
Check out more information on Thai ingredients
Here are some of Kasma’s recipes that use kapi:
- Roasted Chilli Paste (Nahm Prik Pow”)
- Green Curry with Fish/Shrimp Dumplings (Gkaeng Kiow Wahn Loogchin Bplah/Gkoong)
- Pan-Fried Mackerel and Assorted Vegetables (Nahm Prik Bplah Too)
Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, January 2010.