It comes packed in purple bricks of salt and stench, piled high in roadside markets where the heat bakes it into something that sticks to your skin. For most Western palates, it’s kryptonite, the distillation of salt and sea and sun that can turn a plate of boiled greens or a pot of simmered chicken into something hard to swallow. When looking for the reason why food in Burma gets little love from international eaters, look no further than shrimp paste.
“Shrimp paste is the nucleus of Myanmar cooking,” a man from Bagan told me one afternoon as we were sitting down to a lunch that swallowed up every last inch of real estate on his dining room table. “Other countries use it, but we couldn’t get by without it. It’s a part of 98% of our dishes.” Hearing her cue, his wife—a professional palm reader once the sun goes down—went to a cupboard and came back with a slab clutched between her hands. Perhaps the better proof was the meal before us, a generous spread of curries and stir-fries and salads, each one laced with that special Burmese funk.
Asian cuisines thrive on overarching sources of umami: kelp and bonito (combined together to make dashi) in Japan, soy sauce in China, fish sauce in most of Southeast Asia. The Burmese find their umami fix in shrimp paste (ngapi). Ngapi serves as the baseline in curries, the main source of salt in stir-fries, and the star ingredient in ngapi yay, the murky, chile-charged dip that accompanies the pile of raw vegetables so central in every Burmese meal. It’s more than just a matter of taste, of course; when sources of fresh protein are scarce, a few cents’ worth of shrimp paste can imbue an entire meal with the savory intensity that so often substitutes for true satiety.
Factories in China are responsible for much of the world’s shrimp paste these days, but the best ngapi is still made in small fishing villages, where families lay tiny salted shrimp outside for days until the sun bakes their bodies into a formless mass. The shrimp are then pulverized into a slurry and spread out in shallow baskets to ferment under the sun until you can smell it through the windows of your Inle Lake-bound bus.
It ain’t fish sauce, which may lay siege to your olfactory system, but by the time it slips across your tongue its maritime punch has been mitigated by hints of sweet and smoke. No, shrimp paste is a different beast altogether, one whose powerful stench, if anything, serves as a feeble warning system for the furious funk to come.