Foodstuff: Korean Salted Shrimp

Tiny shrimp fermented with salt are a basic foodstuff in all sorts of Korean preparations. There are many culinary parallels in cuisines around the world… fish sauce in Thailand and Vietnam, or Belacan in Malaysia, for example …  and even in the west we use anchovy paste as an umami fillip in such things as Italian tomato sauce. For a lot of people, though, the pungent flavor of fermented seafood products is a bit much, at least in the raw state, but it is a taste that I just love. 

The process for making fermented shrimp is fairly simple and consists of little more than tossing tiny shrimp with a goodly amount of salt and letting the whole mess brew for weeks or months at a time.

In Korea, different shrimp are used, depending on the season, and the quality of the finished product (as outlined in this Wikipedia article) can vary widely. I can’t tell you a lot about the variety pictured above because my wife bought it in a market in Seoul, Korea quite a while ago and it came in a plastic bag with no label or markings whatsoever.  One thing I can relate, however, is that the shells on the shrimp in this batch are quite thick and not easily digestible, which would, from what I have read, mark the product as being at the lower end of quality.

One of the main uses of fermented shrimp in Korean cuisine is in the production of Kimchi, and, in many recipes for this, the whole shrimp are ground to a paste before use. In addition, it is quite often included in egg dishes and added as an enhancement to soups or stews. I have seen references to it being used as a condiment but I can’t see using it being very useful that way, especially with the very thick-shelled varieties.

The thick shells can really be a bit of a problem if you try adding the whole shrimps to a dish and quite a few recipes just call for using just the juice from the fermented shrimp container. Other preparations, as I have noted, grind the shrimp into a paste first while some suggest substituting a commercial Fish Sauce instead. Fish sauces, such as Vietnamese nước mắm can have add a great flavor to many dishes but be aware that, though it is also a fermented product, the taste is quite a bit different from the shrimp sauce and thus is only of limited value as an actual substitute.

 In an ‘Experiment’ post entitled Tomatoes Stir-fry Eggs, I used the juice from salted shrimp instead of the more frequently used Oyster sauce. In that case, I actually took about 1½ tablespoons of the whole shrimp and squeezed it as hard as I could to yield a tablespoon or so of juice. This is a technique I have used many times and it occurred to me that, instead of repeating this process with small amounts for each new dish, I could make up a batch of juice ahead of time.

To do this, I used equal amounts of fermented shrimp and water (about a quarter cup of each, on this occasion) and then gave it a good ‘whizzing’ in my food processor. Afterward, I passed the result through a fine mesh strainer, pressing hard and rubbing the solids to extract as much juice as I could.

 The process yielded rather less than half a cup of liquid and you can see in the picture of the strainer how much solid residue was left behind.

It is not very apparent in the picture of the jar that the color of the liquid actually has a definite purplish tint. This color is actually quite vivid in a number of commercial shrimp paste products (Lee Kum Kee’s version, comes to mind) and I seem to recall reading somewhere that this is an artifact of a pigment in the eyes. I suppose, if you wanted to avoid this you could pick all the tiny eyes out of the shrimp but this strikes me as being a pretty tedious exercise for all that it would accomplish.

Korean fermented shrimp in their whole state often get referred to as Salted shrimp ‘sauce’ in some sources. This seems a bit of a misnomer as most varieties seem far too chunky to qualify as a sauce and my finished product pictured in the jar is way too watery to deserve the name. Accordingly, I think I shall call it ‘Thompson’s Celebrated Fermented Shrimp Juice’, or maybe just ‘Salted Shrimp Juice’ for short. I have a few ideas for some possible uses and I shall detail any experiments in upcoming posts.

On a final note, salted shrimp, being a fermented product, just seem to last and last (in the refrigerator, at least). The batch I have was purchased very nearly two years ago and I can’t detect any diminution in the strength or quality at all. I use it fairly sparingly so I am currently only halfway through the original amount my wife brought back from Korea. If, as time goes by, I start to detect any off tastes I shall report these and give you some final idea as to the suggested ‘shelf-life’.

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