If you have never yet used dried shrimp then you really think about adding this very versatile foodstuff to your pantry. Like mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes, or raisins, the drying process concentrates the flavors of the original product and shrimp, in particular, pack an umami-punch that makes the dried variety very useful indeed…
For the longest time, I associated dried shrimp almost exclusively with Chinese cuisine; mostly, because it has generally been in Chinese grocery stores that I have purchased them. In fact, though, they are widely used throughout south-east Asia, India, Africa and Latin-America. I was also surprised to learn, recently, that they are also quite popularly used in the Cajun cuisine of Louisiana, especially as an addition to gumbos and the like.
Dried shrimp come in a whole range of sizes; from tiny, papery little things to some that are quite large and fleshy. They are traditionally processed by salting the freshly caught shrimp and then drying them in the sun, but commercial dryers are used as well. Both the saltiness and the dryness can vary considerable and the larger ones tend to be a bit softer, and even moister, than the smaller.
In Chinese, there is a distinction made between the larger variety, which are known as蝦米 (pinyin: xiāmǐ), and the tiny varieties, known as蝦皮, or ‘xiāpí’ in Mandarin. The Chinese name for the larger ones means ‘shrimp rice’, reflecting the grain-like appearance, whilst name for the smaller ones means ‘shrimp skin’, which is somewhat accurate in that, after drying, there is very little left other than the shell and appendages. Surprisingly, however, they are every bit as flavorful as the larger types. The large ones may be completely shelled but it is also common to buy some where some, or even all, of the shell still remains.
Dried shrimp are usually soaked before use but they can also be added as is to soups or stews, or rice as it is being cooked. If you are soaking the shrimp, you should always save the soaking water as it will be very flavorful and can also be added to your main preparation.
In many dishes, just a small amount of shrimp can be added as a flavoring agent, but there are also other dishes where they are the sole focus, or else a substantial ingredient in their own right. They are also a major ingredient in the Chinese condiment known as XO Sauce and in south-east Asia especially, they are often included as a component of spice pastes, much like the more pungent fermented varieties such as Belacan.
One of my favorite uses of dried shrimp is in steamed or fried rice and, if you would like to get a good idea of the taste, this is a good preparation for you to start with. Generally, I find that about a third of a cup added to a cup of rice as it goes in the steamer is a good amount. Very small ones can be added whole but the very large varieties should be chopped up a little first.
Other Recipes Using Dried Shrimp