There’s a first time for everything. And you’ll hardly forget the first time you open a tub of shrimp paste.
Your hands will bear the proof for days, smelling like an enthusiastic loader straight from the fresh market.
Your home? It will smell like the workplace of that fishmarket worker!
The next time a recipe calls for shrimp paste, you’ll probably think twice if it’s worth the smell.
But the taste certainly does! You might not believe us, but shrimp paste has an otherworldly taste compared to its smell.
Aside from the odor, there’s another reason to avoid shrimp paste entirely: allergies.
Because seafood is the second most common allergen after peanuts, you don’t want to risk a surprise trip to the ER for yourself or a loved one.
Overall, whether you want to substitute shrimp paste for allergies, pungent smell, a vegan diet, or even simply lacking it, there’s an alternative for every recipe.
- What is shrimp paste?
- What can I use instead of shrimp paste?
- BONUS: Our Favourite Shrimp Paste Recipe
Let’s learn more about this millennia-old delicacy before looking at our favorite shrimp paste substitutes.
What is shrimp paste?
With a little poetic pretense, we could claim that shrimp paste has more names than stars in the sky.
Historians believe it originated in Malaysia a thousand years ago but bears the names Kapi, Belachan, Bagoong, or Terasi. ( * )
Shrimp paste is fermented, and the process varies depending on where you are in the world. In Southeast Asia, where shrimp paste originated, fermentation is not done in the traditional sense with yeast or bacteria.
Traditional shrimp paste is made by brining, which breaks down the proteins into amino acids with salts, sugars, vinegar, and sometimes seasoning.
In addition, salt prevents bacteria and mold from growing on the fish. The fish is dried and formed into a paste after fermentation.
It has sweeping umami tones and a real depth of flavor.
Now we know it’s bold and pungent. But how can we replace shrimp paste to get THAT umami stank without the crustaceans and fish market odor?
What can I use instead of shrimp paste?
It would be easy to say, add anything from the sea to have some umami. But it’s not that simple.
We need ingredients that don’t simply overpower everything else but add another layer of flavors, specifically glutamate and umami.
In some instances, we especially want to avoid a bold fishy taste and simply wish to match the flavor profile instead. Preferably with a salty, briny taste.
Thankfully, all of these are achievable. Take a look:
1. Anchovy Paste
Starting with a definitively fishy one, anchovies are way milder than shrimp paste. So much so that they are a staple in Italian cooking.
The most heavenly Caesar salad you’ve ever had… It probably had anchovies in the dressing. ( * )
You have options here: anchovy paste, dried, or even fresh anchovies will do the trick.
Mashing them with a splash of ginger and light soy sauce, or gochugaru, can get you an uncanny paste and a pro shrimp paste substitute. ( * )
This umami goodness is a little milder than regular shrimp paste, so use twice as much.
With their fierce, umami flavor, anchovies can build up layers of aroma in your recipe. Their brininess and consistency are also similar.
We think they make an excellent substitute for shrimp paste in sauces, salad dressings, pasta, and for the preparation of complex, fermented foods.
The fishiness is still strong with our second shrimp paste substitute.
2. Fish sauce
What else could it be but fish sauce, the ultimate umami bomb? Many claim that it is the best shrimp paste substitute and the only one that yields the same results.
But the smell? That is undeniably terrible. However, the taste won’t be so fishy when it’s cooked.
In some ways, fish sauce is more convenient than shrimp paste since it’s sold in more grocery stores worldwide. Some people even substitute it for shellfish in kimchi.
Although the taste differs mildly, the salty seafood-umami notes are a strong match. Also, both shrimp paste and fish sauce go through a process of fermentation, giving them a similar undertone.
For the same result in any food, you’ll need almost three times as much fish sauce as shrimp paste.
Our next shrimp paste substitute is also centered around replacing the umami flavor.
3. Dark Miso
Miso can be sweeter, saltier, heavier, or lighter. There are different varieties, but we recommend dark miso paste as a convenient shrimp paste substitute.
It’s a perfect choice to get a similar umami taste, albeit slightly deeper with a lingering soy sauce flavor.
While light miso is slightly sweeter and less fermented, dark miso is richer and saltier.
Some recipes may be better with sweet, light miso, even mixed with some sweet fish sauce instead of shrimp paste. One such dish is bún riêu.
Miso paste is also a great choice if you’re looking for a vegetarian or vegan option to replace shrimp paste. Plus, it doesn’t have the slightest fishiness.
We recommend doubling or tripling the dark miso paste to achieve the same results.
Staying on track with fermented beans in paste form can be an excellent replacement for shrimp paste.
4. Fermented Bean Paste
The so-called bean curd is sold at many Asian grocery stores and is used to add astringency to dishes.
This funky condiment is packed in glass jars and packs a flavor punch. We love it for vegan cheese because it tastes like cheddar.
It’s also a high-protein vegan substitute for shrimp paste, with a milder kick than the dark miso paste.
You should try combining fermented bean paste, crushed peanuts, light soy sauce, and kelp.
It will also taste slightly fishy but not as vigorously as our next shrimp paste substitute.
5. Dried Seaweed Flakes
Dried seaweed is a smart way to mimic regular shrimp paste in any dish. Also, it fits into a plant-based diet like a glove.
Glutamate, which gives shrimp paste its iconic umami flavor, has many forms. The amino acid type, which includes all fish and seaweed, is a perfect match in terms of smell, tone, and flavor.
It’s not just rich in taste but also nutritious. Dried seaweed can be your go-to shrimp paste substitute in most Korean and Japanese soups, broths, and stir-fries.
There are many kinds of seaweed, but the most common ones are nori, kombu, rishiri, wakame, and naga. Alas, not all of them are created equal.
Some seaweeds, such as wakame and kombu, have a low umami profile. But you can buy them fresh or dried and store them for a long time.
We love them in salads, sauces, noodles, and broths for substituting shrimp paste.
After a bunch of shrimp paste alternatives, the vegan options don’t stop there.
6. Powdered shiitake mushrooms
Flappy mushrooms are divisive. Many hate them with all their heart, but for some, they are life.
Mince them or sauté, powder or grill, stuff or air-fry; they are so versatile! Our favorites are shiitake and oyster mushrooms.
They work just right instead of shrimp paste, adding a different punch but still a lot of umami. All kinds of mushrooms generally serve well as a vegan seafood replacement.
This is mostly due to their guanylate compound. The similarity is amplified by using dried mushrooms. ( * )
Working with these incredible plants is easy. Chop, heat, and eat!
For meat-eaters, pairing them with fish sauce is heavenly and deepens all the flavors.
Impressively, dried shiitake mushrooms have even more aroma than shrimp paste without any fishiness.
But if you’re missing just that, the next shrimp paste substitute is for you.
7. Dried Fish or Shrimp
Conveniently, you can substitute twice as much dried shrimp or fish for each tablespoon of missing shrimp paste.
As previously stated, shrimp paste has a pungent smell but a mild flavor that is not too overpowering. Dried shrimp, on the other hand, smell and taste fishy.
Rehydrating them first or adding them dried works well, but alters the taste significantly.
The umami is strong with this shrimp paste substitute, just like the next one. They are, in fact, almost identical.
8. Bonito Flakes
The Japanese ingredient, bonito flakes, is a dried, fermented tuna used as a seasoning. It’s very much like a pack of umami!
These ultra-thin, dried skipjack tuna bites are fishier and more intense than shrimp paste. But thankfully, their smell is much better.
We believe they work best in soups, broths, noodles, stir-fry, and vegetable dishes. It fits particularly well in Thai, Korean, and Chinese recipes, salads, or as a garnish.
We don’t recommend it to replace shrimp paste in already heavy, meaty, and smokey recipes.
Add some kelp, soy sauce, sugar, and anchovy paste to bonito flakes to make the perfect shrimp paste substitute. The taste will be divine!
This infuses the briny flavor of the sea. However, our next shrimp paste substitute does the same thing without using any actual fish.
9. Tamary- Vegan Fish Sauce (Vegetarian)
A vegan fish sauce sounds fishy, but it’s absolutely delicious. Tamary, also known as vegan fish sauce, or shoyu, is thick, filled with umami tones, and made from fermented dark soybeans.
It’s not plain and simple fermented. A special kind of healthy fungi, koji, and moromi brine are used in the process.
It’s not only vegan but also gluten-free and wheat-free. What a bargain!
It is safe to consume even if you have hypertension because the salt content is extremely low. The difference between shrimp paste and tamari is barely distinguishable.
Tamari is an excellent choice for adding umami without overpowering fishiness to any dish.
And last but not least, our tenth shrimp paste substitute is a vegan one.
10. Tua Nao – Dried Fermented Soy Beans
There are several types of fermented soy beans with varying tastes and tones.
Tua Nao is a popular vegan alternative to shrimp paste or fish sauce straight from northern Thailand.
We wouldn’t say it’s a perfect substitute for shrimp paste, but it comes a close second. The notes are similar, and it adds a pleasant flavor to dishes.
The palate is similar to a charred, smoked, meaty dish. Tua Nao is frequently combined with flour, lime, chili, and sugar and used in dishes as a substitute for shrimp paste.
That’s it, folks; you’re now ready to substitute shrimp paste in any situation.
But we have one more piece of useful advice to help you get the most out of your meals.
BONUS: Our Favourite Shrimp Paste Recipe
The Bottom Line
A classic and ultimate substitute for shrimp paste can be as simple as fermented bean paste mixed with miso.
Although it is a delicately unique ingredient, you have real options for substituting it!
One method we particularly like is salting the shrimp, juicing it with lime zest, and chilling it overnight in an airtight container in the fridge. The next day, roast it and use it in place of shrimp paste in your recipes.