Shrimp paste- the ingredient that has an incredible inconsistency in Vietnamese gastronomy culture. People think of it with eyebrows raised and nose wings bobbing. Everyone remembers of it with an extremely strong smell but there is a long list of Vietnamese food that, without shrimp paste, they won’t be completed at all. In Vietnamese food culture, shrimp paste is a love- hate dipping sauce.



Fried tofu and rice vermicelli served with shrimp paste



I can still imagine my panic eyesight when I saw my young western guest excitingly dipped a large piece of pig intestine into a bow of shrimp paste that had been well stirred with few drops of lemon, and dropped it definitively into his mouth then chewed with his eyes close and his face stretched. The moment when his eyes opened and his head nodded with a thumb up, I knew that I had successfully introduced the most peculiar dipping sauce of Vietnam to my freshly known Western friend. The reason of that story: that guest of my wanted me to show him the Vietnamese food that he could either hate it or fall in love with it. And shrimp paste immediately appeared in my head!



Boiled pig intestine served with shrimp paste


Shrimp paste (Mam tom in Vietnamese) is made from mainly shrimp and salt. They mix shrimps that have been well cleaned with salt with a proportion of 30% salt and 70% shrimps. Shrimps and salt is placed layer by layer in pottery jars. These jars will then be placed under sunshine and well covered so that rain water cannot absorb in. The fermentation process will take a few months resulting a brownish grey rich liquid that has a very special smell. Lovers will say it smells like a summer breeze but haters complain that it smell just like…dead animals!



Shrimps and salt is fermented in these jars 



Shrimp paste, the earthy brown paste that has an utmost strong smell, has a considerable conflict in many millions Vietnamese appetize. They hate to smell it when not in a restaurant waiting to eat it. The smell is even so strong that if you just touch it nor have it stick on your close, the whole neighborhood will think you are...fertilizing your garden! But once it is used for different kinds of food or processed to be a special dipping sauce, it elevates those dishes up to a whole new level. Shrimp paste and an unbeatable position in Vietnamese cuisine, especial in Hanoi and the North of Vietnam. There are many dishes that, without shrimp paste, will never have it character and will be as dull as a gloomy raining winter day. Anything trying to replace shrimp paste in those dishes is only an uncouth reluctance and will only make you miss shrimp paste even more.




Lemon and chili are born for shrimp paste



Hereunder is the list of special Hanoi dishes that NEED shrimp paste to sing. I will cover these dishes in detail in upcoming posts.

  1. Fried tofu and rice vermicelli served with shrimp paste ( Bun dau mam tom)
  2. Snail noodle soup (Bun oc)
  3. Sour crab noodle soup ( Bun rieu)
  4. Grilled fish (Cha ca)
  5. Bun thang
  6. Rice cake with shrimp paste (Banh duc mam tom)
  7. Dog meat (Thit cho)- For Doggnity reason I’m not gonna write about this!


By Pham Tuyen