Terasi, Belacan, Kapi, And Bagoong, are well-known names for Shrimp paste in Southeast Asian kitchens.

Abdul Halim Ahmad
4 min readAug 14, 2023


The Richness of Shrimp Paste in Southeast Asian Cuisine, Unveiling the Umami Flavor

When we are talking about the Umami flavor, we think about food that is balanced. Umami is one of the five basic tastes perceived by the human palate, alongside sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. It is often described as a savory taste that contributes depth and richness to food. We all know that the term “umami” originates from Japanese and translates to “pleasant savory taste” or “deliciousness.” Umami is typically found in foods that contain glutamate, an amino acid, as well as certain ribonucleotides. Common sources of umami flavor include ingredients such as tomatoes, mushrooms, soy sauce, aged cheeses, and fermented foods like shrimp paste. Umami is known for enhancing and balancing the overall taste of dishes, providing a satisfying and complex flavor profile.

The world of culinary delights is a tapestry woven with diverse flavors, each representing a unique cultural identity. In Southeast Asia, the concept of umami finds one of its most profound embodiments through the use of shrimp paste, a versatile ingredient that adds depth and complexity to regional dishes.

Umami, often referred to as the fifth taste, is characterized by its savory, meaty, and deeply satisfying flavor profile. Discovered and named by Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda in the early 20th century, umami is found naturally in foods like tomatoes, mushrooms, soy sauce, and aged cheeses. Shrimp paste, a staple in Southeast Asian kitchens, embodies this unique taste through its fermentation process.

Whether you like it or not, shrimp paste is a culinary tradition in Southeast Asian kitchens. We can find it easily in most dishes, even though it’s vegetarian like the Rojak/Rujak dish.

But how does shrimp paste elevate the flavor of most dishes known in Southeast Asia? With a pungent aroma of shrimp paste especially when you heat it up, suddenly your sauce or your whole dish tastes amazingly savory, meaty, and yummy.

Shrimp paste, known as “belacan” in Malaysia and Singapore, “kapi” in Thailand, “terasi” in Indonesia, and “bagoong” in the Philippines, is one of the ingredients prepared by fermenting ground shrimp with salt and allowing it to age. This traditional method of preservation not only enhances the umami flavor but also adds a distinctive aroma that is both robust and pungent.

The preparation of shrimp paste is an art that has been perfected over generations. Fresh shrimp, often mixed with small amounts of salt, are pounded together to create a thick paste. This paste is then shaped into small blocks or cakes and left to dry in the sun. The fermentation process can take anywhere from several weeks to a few months, during which the paste transforms into a deeply flavorful and aromatic condiment.

There are differences between countries and also from a place of origin. Like in Indonesia, every city, island, or province has its own specialty. Just like in Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, and The Philippines. Some are quite dry, some are wet, however, all types of shrimp paste will definitely elevate the flavor of the dishes prepared.

The umami-rich shrimp paste is an essential ingredient in numerous Southeast Asian dishes, adding complexity and depth to a wide range of preparations. From curries to stir-fries, and even salads, shrimp paste is used in varying quantities to impart a distinctive umami kick. Its intense flavor may be overpowering when tasted alone, but when judiciously incorporated into recipes, it contributes a harmonious balance that elevates the overall taste profile of the dish.

The use of shrimp paste in Southeast Asian cuisine goes beyond its culinary attributes. It carries cultural and historical significance, embodying the region’s deep-rooted traditions. The practice of fermenting shrimp paste is a reflection of the resourcefulness of communities in preserving their ingredients in a tropical climate. As these communities evolved, so did their culinary practices, with shrimp paste remaining a constant thread that connects generations.

Essentially, Southeast Asian households, always have shrimp pastes, ready-made condiments, sauces, or even the paste, that can be easily used for curry, fried rice, sauces, or even some salad.



Abdul Halim Ahmad

Food writer | Research & Development | Chef Consultant | Food culture enthusiast | Professional chef