Foodstuff: Lee Kum Kee Brand Shrimp Sauce
Before running out and buying this product, prospective purchasers should be aware that the English description of this product on the front of the label as simply ‘Shrimp Sauce’, isn’t a very descriptive indicator of the contents. The Chinese characters above the English name are not a lot more helpful; the last two characters (pronounced xiājiàng) mean ‘shrimp paste’, while the first two are best translated as ‘creamy’, which roughly accords with the ‘finely ground’ descriptor in brackets.
In fact, this is a fermented product and, as such, is a Chinese version of the dried pastes, Belacan and Terasi, which I have featured in the past. It is also, in some respects, a distant cousin of Korean Salted Shrimp, and thus has a pretty pungent quality that many won’t find palatable. Personally, I like the strong umami taste that fermented shrimp products add to many dishes, but I also have to say that, of all the types available, I find that the Chines varieties in general, and this brand in particular, are my least favorite…
The ingredients list is fairly simple and straightforward and indicates that only shrimp and salt are used. The nature of the product is, however, a little more clearly indicated by the bracketed inclusion of the word ‘fermented’.
Appearance and Taste
As you can see, the paste is quite thick and has a rather muddy, purplish color, and I gather that the purple arises from a pigment in the eyes of the specific type of shrimp used. I should say here, however, that this particular jar was a bit more muted in hue than is normal and there were some salt crystals on the surface indicating some drying of the product. Normally, this might indicate some degeneration with a corresponding diminution in quality but, in fact, I found the aroma and taste to be somewhat improved.
The aroma of Chinese shrimp pastes is not for the faint of heart in most cases. This brand in particular is particularly pungent and, beyond the rather faint hint of shrimp somewhere in the background the dominant component is something I can only describe as rather vomit-like. In this case though, the usual nauseating quality of the aroma was very much diminished and was not at all unpleasant (for me at least).
I should hasten to add here, that the usual nasty aroma doesn’t translate into an unpleasant smell or taste once the paste is used in cooking. When added to a hot pan, there is a sudden, and very strong smell that isn’t appetizing but it actually disappears very quickly. Still, although Belecan (Terasi) does produce a very strong smell while cooking it doesn’t , I find, ever have the same nauseating nature and I much prefer it.
The taste of the product right from the jar is, very thankfully, not the same as the aroma. It is, as one would expect, quite salty, but the shrimp taste, though pungently strong and obviously the result of some fermentation, is, for those who appreciate such things, very enjoyable. I don’t know if I can describe it any better than to say that it is like shrimp flavor on steroids.
In cooking, the effect is rather like adding a tablespoon or two of anchovy paste to a tomato sauce in Italian cookery. It is ‘there’ in the final taste, in the sense that it adds a depth of favor, but, unless you use a lot, it just augments the other flavors without betraying the origin.
I am not going to add too much here other than to say that the Chinese variety of shrimp paste can be used in all the same ways as the Indonesian or Malaysian dried varieties (and you may wish to read my post on these, if you haven’t already). The Lee Kum Kee label specifies using the product in stir-fries (which is certainly appropriate with the right ingredients) and it actually includes a simple recipe using squid that I plan to try in an upcoming post…
Beyond that, I will reiterate that I am least fond of this product than I am similar ones. Aside from the general smelliness, I also find that the color renders it a bit impractical for some uses. In a lot of preparations, dark stewed ones for instance, this will not be an issue, but that unpleasant purple hue does preclude the uses in ‘pristine’ light colored coconut milk based curries This product has its uses, I suppose, but I would rather use others to achieve the same basic taste in finished dishes…