Grocery Ninja: Smells Like Home

The Grocery Ninja leaves no aisle unexplored, no jar unopened, no produce untasted. Creep along with her below, and read her past market missions here.

groceryninja-shrimppaste.jpgMy family travels several months out of the year, and it is unusual for all of us to be in the same place at the same time. While we travel light, the one item we always have space for is a bottle of my mom’s hae bee hiam or chili shrimp paste. It doesn’t look like much, and it doesn’t even sound like much, but when you arrive in a foreign country and the weather’s cold, the stores are closed, and you’re just not up to greasy take-out…this stuff is ambrosia over plain white rice.

Essentially a meal of just a condiment on carbs, I’ve had concerned housemates insist on my “eating properly." But I’ve turned down expensed sashimi dinners just because I knew I had a bottle of this in the fridge and was craving a taste of home. Made from a pounded and dry-fried concoction of dried baby shrimp, chili, candlenuts, shallots, belacan (fermented shrimp paste), and a touch of sugar, it’s considered the ultimate condiment—priceless because it’s tedious to prepare, chockful of shrimp, and completely reliant on the cook’s experience and “aggak” (estimation) skills to achieve the perfect balance of sweetness, savory-ness, briney pungence, and blistering heat.

The hae bee or dried shrimp itself has multiple uses and is readily available in Asian groceries (be warned: stale packages smell like the sulphur pits of hell). You’ll often find them soaked and tossed in stir-fries with leafy greens, minced as a decadent substitute for ground pork in dumplings, steamed with chestnuts, Taiwanese sausage, and glutinous rice for a lipsmacking “Asian risotto”—they pack a powerful umami punch. But it’s the “value added” hae bee hiam that we all clamor and will place “advanced orders” with mom for. (One year my brother beat me to it—there was enough hae bee in the freezer for just one bottle, the shops were all closed on New Year’s, and we were both flying off in different directions the next day. I had to make do with bottled Sriracha and was not a happy camper.)

I’ve smuggled precious bottles of this into Australia and New Zealand—home to the strictest quarantine laws in the world—confident that the sniffer dogs would be utterly confounded by rotten shrimp and the decoy pack of dried shiitakes. With Thanksgiving a week away, I know I’ll be having a blast with a motley crew of fellow international grad students—all of us too far away from home to make the trip. The next day though, I’ll be feasting on rice and hae bee hiam. It’s not the same as being home of course, but it sure smells like it.