The beauty of fermented shrimp paste is in how the flavor of shrimp has been, like a glob of molten steel, folded over and over onto itself to create a potent end product. In coastal Vietnam, the process of making this paste utilizes this same method of repetitive action: A mass of shrimp are dried, ground up, pickled, then dried again, each step concentrating and sharpening the flavor. Northern Vietnamese favor a more finely ground paste made from big shrimps, while Central Vietnamese make a rougher, redder paste from the tiny, krill-like shrimp found there.
For years, Vietnamese American cookbook author and expert Andrea Nguyen has maintained that Americans need to wise up to the wonders of fermented shrimp paste. For consistency, Nguyen favors the Lee Kum Kee and Koon Chun brands, both of which call the condiment “finely ground shrimp sauce.” From an early age, Nguyen knew that mastering fermented shrimp paste had everything to do with making it work in tandem with other strong flavors.