The umami powerhouse gives many Asian dishes their signature taste
By now, most people know enough about umami to be an interesting (or insufferable) dinner guest. But what’s often missing in discussions of beloved fifth-taste foods (hello, miso and aged cheese) is a source of umami common in Southeast Asia, South China, and parts of Australia: fermented shrimp. Whether it’s called terasi (Indonesia), belacan (Malaysia), balichão (Macau), kapi (Thailand), ngapi (Myanmar) or bagoong alamang (Philippines), it is the pungent, aromatic ingredient that gives many Asian dishes their signature taste. Needless to say, there’s a lot to know about it.
What is fermented shrimp? Is it an ‘ancient’ food?
Fermented shrimp only requires three ingredients: micro shrimp or krill, sun, and salt, all of which are abundant in Southeast Asia. Those with discerning taste will be able to tell the difference between krill caught in the Andaman Sea versus Gulf of Thailand by the degree of its briny flavor or pungent aroma.
Fermented shrimp was born from the need to preserve food in a tropical environment before the invention of refrigeration. Its roots, as such, run deep; although the origin of fermented shrimp differs by country, it can be used to understand life, trade, and colonization in Southeast Asia. Ngapi-makers were listed in Burmese stone and marble inscriptions as early as the 12th century, while terasi predates modern-day Indonesia: The 18th-century Carita Purwaka manuscript, which details the history of the Cirebon Sultanate in Java, documents how terasi was widely traded in 15th-century Java between the sultanate and the East Sunda kingdom. It was the main source of flavor, so when the kingdom of Cirebon deliberately stopped selling salt and terasi to the East Sunda kingdom, it caused a war.
It is also no coincidence that fermented shrimp has similar-sounding names in Malaysia and Macau, where it is known as belacan and balichão, respectively. Both places are linked by a history of Portuguese colonization and trade dating back to the 16th century. Their connection is personal for Susana Batalha, the chef and owner of Fat Tea Macanese Food, a restaurant in Selangor, Malaysia. “My great-grandmother is a Malaysian descendant of the Portuguese settlers, the Kristang,” Batalha says. When the Kristang went to Macau, she explains, they took foods like coconut and belacan with them “because Macau didn’t have those ingredients.”
How is fermented shrimp made?
Reggie Surya, an associate professor in the food technology department at Bina Nusantara University in Indonesia, refers to the process of making terasi as “spontaneous or uncontrolled fermentation” where there are no external microorganisms to aid the process.
“There are two steps here,” Surya says. “In the first step, we boil, drain, and salt the shrimp. It needs to have 5 to 20 percent salt concentration to prevent spoilage. This takes about one to two days.”
The next step is about developing flavors. “Traditionally we grind the salted shrimp with a large mortar and pestle, shape into a block, and sun-dry it for a few days,” Surya says. “It is ready when we can hold the block easily with our hands without it crumbling. Then, the block is fermented for a longer period, usually one to three months to allow flavor development.”
This process is the building block (no pun intended) for fermented shrimp across the region, with some variations. In certain parts of inland Java, the northern islands of the Philippines, and the northern regions of Thailand and Myanmar, people may incorporate small fishes into the fermentation process, depending on what is available in the area. “Upper Myanmar (an inland area) uses sweeter freshwater fish trawled from the Irrawaddy River, which runs through the whole country,” said MiMi Aye, the author of Mandalay: Recipes & Tales From a Burmese Kitchen, over email. “Lower Myanmar (a coastal area), where most ngapi comes from, uses marine fish.” The final product may look black compared to the brown-pink hues of pure fermented shrimp.
There are also differences in texture. Pranee Halvorsen, a Thai chef who owns cooking schools in Seattle, refers to Thai fermented shrimp as “malleable.” Kapi “is like a paste — a bit soft and can be made into a ball,” she says. “It comes in small plastic containers and there will be traces of crystallized salt in the container.”
Interestingly, there is a correlation between climate and the consistency of the shrimp paste. The nearer a place is to the unrelenting sun and humidity of the equator, the harder the shrimp paste becomes, which is why terasi and belacan in Malaysia and Indonesia are sold in dry, solid blocks. The farther north one goes from the equator, the fermented shrimp gets pastier, like kapi and ngapi in Thailand and Myanmar, respectively.
Once you are in Macau, the shrimp paste, called balichão, is almost sauce-like, with a slightly chunky but pourable texture. Unlike other shrimp pastes in Southeast Asia, balichão is very much a homemade condiment that is rarely found on store shelves. Batalha has tried to make her own Macanese-style balichão in Malaysia, where she lives, but without much success — the humidity “spoils it before it ferments,” she says.
How do you use fermented shrimp?
This depends on your preferred effort-to-outcome ratio. A fuss-free way to use fermented shrimp is to think of it as a topping or condiment just like relish, bonito flakes, or chile crisp. In the Filipino ensaladang talong (eggplant salad) with green mangoes, for example, eggplants are mashed with tomatoes, onions, and vinegar and then topped with fermented shrimp for a mix of tangy and savory flavors.
Another relatively easy option is to combine a small dollop with lime juice, bird’s eye chile, garlic, and palm sugar to make a Thai dipping sauce (nam prik) for vegetable stir-fry dishes or fried rice. This is also a common use for ngapi in Myanmar, where it is simmered with chiles and garlic to make a dipping sauce called ngapi yay and eaten with vegetables.
Fermented shrimp is also a key but almost hidden ingredient in Thai curry paste, where it’s used in small quantities along with ingredients like chile, lemongrass, galangal, and chopped cilantro. “Most people can’t detect the fermented shrimp. But like fish sauce in Thai soup, it makes a dish rich and robust,” Halvorsen says.
Similarly, in Myanmar, a popular use for ngapi is a paste called ngapi kyaw or balachaung. When fried with alliums and other aromatics, it becomes a relish or condiment for rice. “Ngapi is fried in oil with dried shrimp, onions, garlic and chili, sometimes tamarind and other ingredients and spices,” Aye said. “The texture of this relish varies from quite wet to relatively dry.”
In Macau, balichão is used to make hearty, savory dishes such as porco balichão tamarinho, a braised pork dish with tamarind. “You can put a teaspoon of fermented shrimp in the braising liquid for any kind of meat,” Halvorsen says. “It’s like how we cook anchovies with lamb shanks. Same thing! Just remember that the shrimp paste is already salty so you have to use less salt than usual.”
Those with more time and energy to wield a mortar and pestle can use fermented shrimp to make a distinct sambal, such as the sambal belacan (also known as sambal terasi) that Malaysians and Indonesians are particularly fond of. Toast the shrimp paste to mellow the scent and flavor and then pound it in a mortar along with chiles of varying heat, depending on the constitution of the eater.
In Malaysia especially, sambal belacan has become such a ubiquitous condiment that many equate the word “belacan” with sambal belacan, unaware that the former is a component of the latter, and not equivalent. This sambal can include a multitude of add-ins like tempeh and small dried fish that can be eaten with plain rice. Sambal belacan can also be used to prepare a whole host of dishes like kerabu, a kind of raw vegetable and/or fruit salad common in north Malaysia and South Thailand. It’s often topped with kerisik, a sweet and gritty paste made from toasted coconut.
Southeast Asian food tends to be rice- and vegetable-centric, but the liberal use of fermented shrimp to flavor food means that it can be challenging (or unusual) to be a strict vegan or vegetarian. “Ngapi, dried shrimp, fish sauce and even fish are still generally considered part of a vegetarian diet in Myanmar,” Aye said. “Vegetarian means pescatarian. I have heard of many tourists trying to explain that they are vegetarian and still being presented with a stir-fry of bamboo shoots and prawns.”
Are there any more creative uses for fermented shrimp?
To answer this question you need only to look to Indonesia, where you’ll find burgers with terasi sauce and spaghetti with a side of terasi condiments. Even McDonald’s in Indonesia sold fried chicken with sambal terasi during Ramadan a few years ago.
For those of us who must contend with regular ketchup and chile sauce in McDonalds, there are plenty of other ways to try fermented shrimp. Here are some suggestions:
Panlasang Pinoy’s ensaladang talong
Eating Thai Food’s Thai dipping sauce
The Woks of Life’s kangkung belacan
Daily Cooking Quest’s snake beans with terasi
Macanese Recipes’ porco balichão tamarinho
Love Is in My Tummy’s ngapi kyaw/balachaung
Annie Hariharan is a Malaysian Australian feature writer focused on food, food history, and pop culture. She is based in Melbourne, Australia.
Alia Ali is a translator, cook, and co-founder of the Malaysian food website Periuk. She is based in Langkawi, Malaysia.
Sophia Pappas is a Pittsburgh-based illustrator.