How Shrimp Paste (Gkabi) is Made
by Kasma Loha-unchit
See Also: Shrimp Paste Information.
Unlike fish sauce, shrimp paste is still mostly made by fishing families in villages along the coast, then sold to market vendors for resale to consumers, or to middlemen and distributors, who package them into containers with their brand names on them. Because each area has its own way of making shrimp paste, the product collected from families and villages in the same vicinity tends to share similar qualities. gkabi , therefore, becomes known by the province or village from where it comes.
My husband and I once visited a small village known for the quality of its gkabi, made from miniscule white shrimp, known as keuy, smaller even than a housefly. Fishing boats leave for sea in the morning and return in late afternoon with their catch. The sleepy village suddenly awakens, as the shrimp are unloaded, rinsed, laid out to drain before salting (approximately 1 cup sea salt to two pounds of shrimp), then filled into earthenware jars overnight.
The next morning, they are spread out on plastic or fiberglass mats on the ground next to the fishermen's simple wooden homes to dry in the hot tropical sun. Late in the day, they are gathered and re-stored in the jars for the night, to be laid out again the next day when the sun burns hot. This goes on for three or more days, until the shrimp disintegrate and dry from pink to a dark purplish brown. When the shrimp are no longer recognizable and completely turned into dense paste, the gkabi is ready for use and is returned to the earthen jars until an agent comes by to collect it. The shrimp paste gathered from all the families in the village is mounded into enormous, colorful plastic tubs, each weighing several hundred kilograms when filled. If properly dried, the paste can keep for several months without refrigeration.
To make gkabi from larger shrimp, the shrimp are allowed to ferment for a few days in the earthen jars to soften their shells before placing out to dry in the sun. The drying takes longer, the number of days or weeks dependent on the size of the shrimp. During the drying stage, partially decomposed shrimp are periodically put through a grinder, or pounded in a large mortar, then placed out to dry further until they become a fine paste and develop the dark finished color. The agent keeps the different grades made from different kinds of shrimp in separate, color-coded tubs. Even though we were surrounded by huge mounds of paste, several tons in all, we were amazed how we barely noticed the stench of fermenting shrimp, unless we put our noses right up close to the paste. That day, we bought a few kilograms of the best grade from the village to give as gifts to family and friends for a mere pittance; stalls along the major highway nearby sell the same grade for double the price; and by the time it makes its way into Bangkok, the price would have climbed a lot more.
Similar pastes made from shrimp are also used in the cooking of southern China and other Southeast Asian countries. These can vary from light pinkish grey and very moist, fluid-like sauces in jars to dark chocolate-brown, firmly compressed blocks. The kind used for Thai cooking leans toward the latter. Since other Asian cultures use shrimp paste differently in their cooking and prefer different strengths, it is best to purchase a product from Thailand for use in Thai dishes.
Learn How Fish Sauce is Made.