Thai Foods Ep.4


Funky Shrimp Paste Dip - Nam Prik Gapi

by Thomas M. Tillman

It's Stinky, But Oh So Delicious.

There are no two ways about it; shrimp paste or what we call gapi is stinky. But it's also tasty, or it wouldn't be such a beloved ingredient in so many Asian countries. Shrimp paste's superpower is in its intense umami. Its funky, savory flavour adds an oomph to any dish that no other ingredients can quite replicate. This is why shrimp paste fried rice is one of my all-time favourite Thai dishes.

Is Shrimp Paste an Acquired Taste?

For some, yes, but not necessarily. I grew up with this stuff, so my love for shrimp paste didn't need to be "acquired." For others, it takes a while, and for some, they can never acquire it.

What is nam prik?

Nam prik refers to the hundreds of varieties of spicy dips. Consider it the Thai version of a veggies and dip platter. It's such an integral part of Thai cuisine, and some households never have a meal without some sort of nam prik on the table. The varieties are endless, but the common thread is that they are all spicy. After all, prik means chilies!

Step-By-Step

Check out detailed recipes in the recipe card below, but here's a bird's eye view of what you'll need to do.
Collage of step-by-step process of making shrimp paste dip.
1. Add soaked dried shrimp to a heavy duty mortar and pestle. 2. Pound until fluffy. 3 Add garlic and chilies. 4 Pound until there aren't any big chunks
A collage of step-by-step process for making shrimp paste dip.
5. Add palm sugar 6. Pound until the sugar is dissolved 7. Add the shrimp paste 8. pound to mix the shrimp paste with the dried shrimp.
9. Add lime juice 10. Add fish sauce 11. Add a little water to adjust the strength and consistency. 12. Add a little red chilies for colour and serve!

How to Choose the Right Shrimp Paste

Not all shrimp pastes are created equal, and the quality of your shrimp paste can make or break this dish. Fortunately the two brands pictured below, one Thai and the other Malaysian, are available at many Asian stores and are perfectly acceptable. There is also a Chinese one also shown below, but I do not recommend using it for this particular recipe.
An image of Thai shrimp paste showing both the packaging and The inside.
Thai shrimp paste. This is a household brand that is great as an all-purpose shrimp paste.
An image of Malaysian shrimp paste showing both the packaging and the actual.
Malaysian shrimp paste or belacan. It is slightly dryer and may require a little extra water, but works just as well.
An image of Chinese fermented shrimp sauce jar and another image showing the inside.
Chinese shrimp paste or "shrimp sauce". This has a slightly different flavour and it is an OK substitute if the recipe uses it in small amounts, such as in a curry paste, but for this recipe I do not recommend it.
If you go to Thailand (when we can travel again...) and you get to visit one of the seafood markets, bring home some "artisanal" shrimp paste! Just make sure it's well sealed in your luggage!

What do you serve shrimp paste dip with?

A platter of shrimp paste dip with steamed and raw veggies, omelette, and pan fried mackerel.
Some common accompaniments to nam prik gapi: Pan fried short mackerel, vegetable omelette, steamed and raw vegetables, and egg-fried eggplant. Everything is served with jasmine rice.
Anything you would want to eat with a dip, you can try it with nam prik gapi. But here are some classic options:
  • Jasmine rice (this is a must). This dip is strong, you don't want to pile it on like it's guac. So the rice is there to mellow it out. See the end of the video for how I make a perfect little bite.
  • Mackerel. We use short mackerel that are steamed and pan fried, but any kind of pan fried mackerel will work.
  • Steamed or raw vegetables such as cabbage, long beans, cucumber; really anything you'd serve with any other dip.
  • Vegetable omelette or plain omelette. You don't want any seasoning here because the dip is all the seasoning you need.
  • Boiled eggs. Make them medium, hard, or soft, up to you!
  • Egg-fried eggplant. This is one of my favorites; simply dip slices of long eggplant in beaten egg, then pan fry until golden and cooked through. That's it!

Frequently Asked Questions About Nam Prik Gapi

How do I store open shrimp paste, and how long does it last?

Shrimp paste will last till your kids go to college. Kidding! ... well...not really. It's a fermented, highly salted paste, so kept in the fridge I've never seen it go bad even after many years. Keep it well sealed to prevent it from drying out though - and so your fridge won't smell like shrimp paste!

How long does shrimp paste dip last?

Keep it in the fridge and it'll last a few weeks, but I recommend finishing it within a week because the flavour of fresh lime juice and garlic will start to deteriorate. This is why I only make a small amount each time.

Is miso a good vegan substitute for shrimp paste?

Not for this recipe. The way miso is made is quite similar to how shrimp paste is made, except soybeans are use instead. For recipes where the flavour of shrimp paste is not prominent, and it's added only for the umami such as in curry pastes, then I would say miso is fine. But if the flavour of shrimp paste is the star, then miso will taste nothing like it.

Is there any other substitute for shrimp paste?

For this recipe? No. There are no ingredients that come close to tasting like shrimp paste, and you really would not be making nam prik gapi if you used anything else.

How is shrimp paste made?

Shrimp paste can be made from either krill or tiny shrimp. In simple terms, they are mixed with salt, ground, and left to ferment in an anaerobic condition for at least a few months. Flavours of different shrimp pastes vary depending on the type of shrimp or krill used and the amount of salt added.

INGREDIENTS

  • 2 Tbsp dried shrimp
  • 2-3 cloves garlic
  • Thai chiliesto taste (1-2 is probably enough, but some make this super spicy)
  • 1 ½ Tbsp finely chopped palm sugar
  • 2 Tbsp shrimp paste
  • 3-4 Tbsp lime juice
  • 1-2 tsp fish sauce
  • 2-3 Tbsp water
  • Extra chopped red and green peppers for colouroptional, but if presentation is important, you'll need it

For serving, any of the following or anything else you'd want to dip:

  • Jasmine ricenecessary
  • Steamed or raw veggies
  • Pan fried mackerel
  • Vegetable omelettesee video for a quick demo of how to make it
  • Boiled eggs
  • Japanese eggplant slices dipped in egg and pan fried
  • Note: Seasonings are given as a range because how much you need will depend on the kind of shrimp paste you're usingwhich can vary in intensity. So start with the lower amount and taste and adjust as needed.

INSTRUCTIONS

  • Cover dried shrimp in water and microwave for 30 seconds or however long it takes the water to be steaming hot. Let it cool for a few minutes.
  • Drain the dried shrimp (you can keep the water and use it as the water called for in the recipe). Add dried shrimp to a mortar and pestle and pound until they're broken into small fluffy bits.
  • Add garlic and chilies and pound until the garlic and chilies are fine. (Larger bits of chili skins are fine.)
  • Add palm sugar and pound until it's mostly dissolved.
  • Add shrimp paste and pound to mix, making sure there are no clumps of shrimp paste left.
  • Add lime juice and fish sauce and mix well with a spoon. Add about a tablespoon of water to start then taste; and if you want it to be a bit more mellow, add a little more water. But keep in mind this is supposed to be a strongly-flavoured dip that's used only a little at a time. You can also add more lime juice, sugar or fish sauce as needed.
  • Serve with all the accompaniments and enjoy!