Dried shrimp is a very common ingredient in Asian cuisine. In Chinese, it is called 蝦米/虾米 (traditional vs simplified characters) and pronounced xia mi in Mandarin or ha mai in Cantonese. Another common name is 海米 (hai mi).
Mama Lin stores bags of them in her fridge and adds them into nearly everything she cooks—from dumplings, to vegetables and soup. She keeps so much of them that I usually take small bags home with me. Don’t be fooled by their size. Though small, dried shrimp impart a lot of umami flavor to any dish. (Side note: In Chinese, we refer to umami flavor as “甜” (tían), which coincidentally, is also the word used to describe “sweet.” Imagine my confusion when I was learning these Chinese words as a kid.)
To dry the shrimp, shrimp are first soaked in a brine, which acts as a natural preservative, before they are dried in the sun. Larger ones are usually more expensive than the tiny shrimp. Certain sizes of dried shrimp are better suited for different recipes. For example, the larger shrimp are great for flavoring soups, while the very tiny ones are great for dumpling fillings. In general, I like keeping medium-sized dried shrimp in my refrigerator.
HOW TO SELECT DRIED SHRIMP
Dried shrimp are often sold in packages in Asian supermarkets. You might also find them sold in bulk in Chinatown or other large Asian markets. Regardless of the size, you want to select the package with shrimp that have a rich orange color. You want ones that look like the image on the left above, not the shrimp on the right. You do not want shrimp that have a faded orange color with tiny white specks all over. It is an indication that the shrimp has been stored too long or that the shrimp was not properly dried when stored.
HOW TO STORE
Store dried shrimp in the fridge or freezer. They can keep for a very long time. You can store them in a glass jar in the fridge for 3 to 4 months without the color fading. I also like to freeze them in a Ziploc bag to store them for up to a year.
If you buy them in a package, cut open the package and store them in a jar. I once left an unopened bag of dried shrimp in my fridge for months only to find mold when I was ready to use them. If I had opened the package sooner, I would have noticed the discolored shrimp and tossed them.
WAYS TO USE
You can use dried shrimp to flavor stir fries, broths, curries, and even dumplings. I love using it in fried rice, jook (congee), or sticky rice. Mama Lin usually soaks the shrimp in water for 20 to 30 minutes before using it in stir fries. This helps to soften the shrimp. I have stir fried medium and tiny dried shrimp without pre-soaking and I quite like the hard, chewy texture of the shrimp. It’s not for everyone though.
If you plan to make soup or congee, you don’t need to soak the shrimp first, as they will be simmering for quite some time. Simply rinse the shrimp and add them to the pot.
In Burmese cuisine, it is common to soak a lot of dried shrimp, drain them, and crush the shrimp into very small bits. You can do this in a food processor. This shrimp “pulp” is very convenient for cooking, but you should use it within a few weeks.