What is Ngapi?

Ngapi means “pressed fish” in Burmese Language. Ngapi (shrimp & fish paste) is a popular fermented condiment for Burmese people and it is the main ingredient to make the delicious Ngapi dishes. It is one of the famous local Myanmar products like Jaggery, Laphet (Tea leaf and Green Tea) and Pon Yi Gyi (fermented bean paste or fermented soy beans) in Myanmar. Delicious Ngapi is made with small shrimps and fish. To obtain Ngapi, local people salt fish and small shrimps, dry salted fish and shrimp under the sun and pound them in a mortar. The duration of fermentation to get Ngapi takes 3 to 5 months which will vary according to different types of Ngapi. Some Ngapi makers add a little oil or salt to the paste to help preserve it, while others allow it to ferment naturally.

The taste of Ngapi is salty and the smell is different from the usage of fish and shrimps and the duration of fermentation in the pot. Mostly the smell of Ngapi is pungent but local people are willing to eat it everyday. The human body can get nutrition like  protein and a lot of Vitamins from Ngapi. It is a highly salty product and therefore people should consume it within moderation. Burmese people eat Ngapi in a range of dishes. The main dishes on Burmese dining table include tomatoes Ngapi curry, chicken Ngapi curry, prawns Ngapi curry or Ngapi boiled with fresh Vegetables together with cooked rice, curry and soups as a daily eating routine. Most Ngapi enterprises can be found in the deltas and coastline areas in Myanmar.

Drying Shrimp Pastes (Ground Ngapi)  under the Sun (Photo Credit : Pin Lal Thu)

Types of Ngapi or Shrimp & Fish Pastes

In this article, I will describe four main categories of Ngapi in Myanmar. It can be available in souvenir shops, supermarkets and grocery stores in lower Myanmar. 

Ngapi Yay (fermented fish) : one of the Ngapi which is preserved fish for brewing the condiment. Compressed fish are mostly big,  freshwater fish and marine fish. The commonly used fish in Ngapi Yay are banded snake head, climbing perch and feather back. Local people salt the above-mentioned fishes and ferment them in a convenient pot. After 2 days, the fermented fish are pounded in a mortar and fermented again in the pot. The duration of fermentation to obtain ngapi yay (runny Ngapi) takes 3 to 5 months.

For preparation of Ngapi Yay, people boil water and Ngapi Yay in the frying pan and then they mix with garlic, crushed chili powder, red or green chili and shredded shrimp flakes to get a good taste and attractive smell. This Ngapi is mostly produced in the Ayeyarwady region, Pyapon Distinct. Ngapi yay with fresh and boiled vegetables is an essential  Burmese cuisine for Karen people and local people in Ayeyarwady region and central part of Myanmar. The recipe is typically served with fresh or boiled vegetables, making it a hearty and satisfying meal.

Ngapi Yay Kyo and Toh Sa Yar or Fresh and Boiled Vegetables  (Photo Credit : Nan Hsu Myat Oo)

Sein Sar Ngapi (Shrimp or Fish Paste): Local people make Sein Sar Ngapi which contains either fish (various small fish which are easy to assimilate) or shrimps. People keep fish and shrimps under the sun for about 3 days and then pound them in a mortar. Either fish or shrimps become to be assimilated, people add salts in a mortar and pound them again. The time it takes for fermenting fish and shrimps is about 3 to 4 months. Then, people dry fermented salted fish and shrimps under the sun to be ready to eat. Sein Sar Ngapi is produced in the Tanintharyi region and it is also called Dawei Sein Sar Ngapi and Myeik Sein Sar Ngapi based on their region but the taste of Sein Sar Ngapi is the same.

Regional origin of Tanintharyi use Ngapi as a Ngapi salad (Ngapi thoke) which is mixed with other ingredients like garlic, chopped onions, large green chili, lime, green mangoes, Pa Ohn Yi and dried shrimps and then people eat this salad together with vegetables. Local people also consume Ngapi which is pounded Ngapi with sour fruits, Mote Latt Thouk and Dawei papaya salad. Thus, Ngapi is a delicious way to enjoy the local traditional foods.

Pounded Shrimp Paste or  Dawei Ngapi  Daung (Photo Credit : Thu Thu)

Myin Ngapi (Shrimp Paste) : The making process of Myin Ngapi is the same with Sein Sar Ngapi. The name of Myin Ngapi is derived from a fishing drag net (Myin is a Burmese name) and it contains small shrimps (Gway Kaug is a Burmese name). Local people dry small shrimps in the sun for 2 hours and pound them in the mortar. In the mortar, people pound about 7 viss (Burmese unit of weight) of Ngapi at one time. When the shrimp is assimilated in the mortar, people dried sun and pounded the mixture again.

This shrimp paste is mostly manufactured in Ayeyarwady region (Pyapon District, Labutta District and Shwethaungyan beach) and Rakhine State (Thandwe Township and Gwa Township). Myin Ngapi in Rakhine State is also known as Gowd Nga Pi which represents Gowd village (mostly producing Myin Nga Pi) in Rakhine State. One of the local people said that “when Rakhine people pound Rakhine Ngapi they eat papaya salad with direct consumption of raw Ngapi to taste Rakhine Nga Pi''. Some regions also make up Myin Nga Pi (shrimp paste) in Tanintharyi region (Launglon township and Myeik district) and Mon State (Ye township and Thanbyuzayat township). It is delicious and it mainly includes Gway Kaug (small shrimps). Gway Kaug can be found by people at the shore in September and October to make Ngapi. So, local people have limited time to produce Myin Ngapi. Thus, Myin Ngapi  is more expensive than other Ngapi and it is also the favorite Ngapi by local people in Myanmar. Rakhine people use Ngapi in most dishes of the Rakhine version such as baked Rakhine Ngapi in Mote Di, Rakhine Papaya Salad and also as soup based. Local people in Myanmar consume this Ngapi as a fried shrimp paste (ngapi gyaw) , Ngapi curry (ngapi kyeik) and baked or roasted ngapi together with cooked rice and blanched vegetables.

Picture of Myin Ngapi (Shrimp Paste) (Photo Credit : Pin Lal Thu)

Ngapi Gaung (Salty Fish) : Ngapi Gaung or Ngapi Kaung is made with the whole body of big fish and put with salt. Firstly, people clean a fish, fork it and salt the whole fish. Secondly, people put the salted fish in a plastic bag or banana leaf and fork to the plastic bag or banana leaf. Finally, the salted fish packed in a plastic bag or banana leaf are pressed with a weight. After 2 days, you can eat Ngapi Gaung (whole Ngapi fish) or can store it in a fridge. You can adjust the saltier Ngapi Gaung taste by adding broken rice, rice soup and rice flour. These enterprises can be found in Ayeyarwady region (mostly Pyapon District). Ngapi Gaung is a durable food and it can be eaten as fried Ngapi Gaung, fried spicy Ngapi Gaung and Ngapi Gaung curry. Fried Ngapi Gaung can last a long time and it is suitable for daily office workers because it does not take much time for cooking. Older people enjoy eating fried Ngapi Gaung and cooked rice for breakfast in the rural areas of Myanmar.

In summary, we make different kinds of delicious Ngapi that are produced in different States and Regions in Myanmar. The eating styles of Ngapi are varied in Myanmar but it is an essential condiment or Burmese cuisine for people who enjoy eating Ngapi and blanched vegetables as a main dish if they don’t have other dishes on Burmese dining table. If you are from outside Myanmar, you should try a delicious Burmese Ngapi in different areas of Myanmar and you can experience local people's traditional foods together with Ngapi. After that, don’t forget to buy Ngapi as a present from Myanmar to take back to your native home.

May 15, 2022