If you have ever perused any Filipino cookery books, or Filipino recipes on the Internet, you have probably come across the name ‘Bagoong’ from time to time. Most sources confidently assert that ‘Bagoong’ is a fermented shrimp paste but this is only partly correct as there are many varieties made with fish as well. The fish types are collectively known by the name ‘Bagoóng Isdâ’, but there are also specific names depending on the type of fish being used. If a Bagoong is made with shrimp, however (and most commonly the super tiny variety known as ‘krill’, is used), then, strictly speaking, it should be called Bagoóng Alamáng.
Like Terasi and Belcan, or Chinese Shrimp Paste, the Filipino variety is manufactured by allowing small shrimp to ferment with salt. However, in the Philippines, the ‘raw’ product is only used in limited ways (generally as a condiment on cooked rice or fresh fruit), and, instead, it is generally cooked before packaging for sale, often with other ingredients such as garlic, chili or onion. Sometime ago, I actually featured the Lingayen Brand in a foodstuff post (which is a fairly complex variety), but I didn’t specifically identify it as a ‘Bagoong Alamang’. Here, I thought I might use the ‘Barrio Fiesta’ brand as a vehicle for a general discussion of the condiment as it is a pretty decent representative of the type …
Unlike the aforementioned ‘Lingayen Brand’ product, the Barrio Fiesta variety is packed with quite a bit of oil (Corn Oil specifically), and there is a good inch or so floating on top of the paste inside the jar. The color is quite dark, and more of a natural mahogany red, rather than the somewhat artificial pinkish-orange hue of the Lingayen type. As with all Filipino shrimp pastes, the aroma on opening the jar is much milder than it is with those from other countries and this is almost certainly because it is cooked already. Using the ‘fresh’ varieties, particularly those from China, can yield a very pungent, almost foul odor when you first begin to cook, and many people find this off-putting. For this reason, using a Filipino brand is a good way for ‘beginners’ to get used to the basic ingredient.
The ingredients listed on the label include (in addition to the salted shrimp), garlic, sugar, vinegar, and onion but the taste of the paste straight from the jar reminds me very much of the Indonesian ‘Yeo Brand Minced Prawns in Spices’ that I featured in a post some three years ago. The spicy hotness is lacking in this case (the Yeo Brand contains Chili), but the two share a slightly nutty quality alongside the umami taste of the shrimp that works very well. Funnily enough, the Indonesian product actually contains peanuts (which this one does not) and I wonder if the ‘nuttiness’ is an artifact of using corn oil as a packing medium. In general, the overall flavor is very rich and nicely balanced but I did, in a couple of taste tests, detect a few sharp, almost bitter, notes here and there.
By the way, one thing to note is that a lot of salt is used here and, in my experience, this is quite common with Filipino Bagoong’s (in contrast to the shrimp pastes from elsewhere). In Filipino cookery, this is often addressed by using the sweet/sour combination of sugar and vinegar to counteract the saltiness. This may not be a problem if you are just using a tablespoon or so in a given recipe, but it is something to keep in mind if using more than this.
Bagoong is commonly used in soups, stews and sautés, either as a minor or major flavoring, but it is also used as a condiment too. As a good way to test the product, you can do as I have done and stir a little into plain rice. A little goes a long way and just a half teaspoon in a half cup of rice is plenty. Here, I have used freshly steamed rice but many Filipinos like to use Bagoong as a topping on leftover (Bahaw) rice eaten at room-temperature.
Finally, I just want to note that, when I purchased this Barrio Fiesta product, I saw that the store also carried a ‘Spicy’ variety as well. There is also, apparently, a ‘Sweet’ version available from the manufacturer and, as time and availability permits, I will try these other two types and report on the results in due course.