My friend Serene posted a mouthwatering photo of Thai Noodle Soup and it looked so good I had to try the recipe myself. It calls for Thai shrimp paste (belachan), which meant a trip to one of San Diego’s many Asian grocers.
We discovered something that’s not clear from the Wikipedia article or most of the other references we found online: there are 2 very different things available called “shrimp paste.”
Our first stop was a Vietnamese store, and the only thing we could find were several brands of the stuff on the left: shrimp paste in soybean oil, whose ingredients include shrimp, garlic, soybean oil, pepper, salt, paprika, and often MSG. However, from what I’d seen online, that didn’t seem right. It smells shrimpy, but it wasn’t the “light pinkish gray” or dark brown block that I was expecting. So then we stopped at a Korean store, and picked up the jar on the right. Ingredients: shrimp and salt. Light pinkish gray. Smells like death. But called “shrimp sauce.”
We made the soup with the stuff on the right. It was great (thanks Serene!). Like fish sauce, it adds a wonderful earthy richness when it’s cooked in the soup. The other stuff seems a bit more like a condiment or stir-fry sauce – it’s still got a strong shrimpy aroma, but nothing like the gut-wrenching power of plain shrimp paste (the recipe calls for “a pea-sized piece”).