Nowadays, the word "paste" isn't commonly used in conjunction with food. Perhaps because of the term's crafty connotations, fans of shrimp paste have come up with an array of other names for the traditional Lowcountry dish: Various cookbook authors refer to it as a mousse, spread, puree, sandwich filling or dip.
"We call our riff on the classic Charleston shrimp paste 'Shrimp pate,' simply because the word 'paste' doesn't sound appetizing," Matt Lee and Ted Lee wrote in "The Lee Bros. Simple Fresh Southern: Knockout Dishes With Down-Home Flavor."
No matter what's it's called, though, shrimp paste has been a regional constant for centuries. There are three recipes for the cooked, ground dish in "Two Hundred Years of Charleston Cooking," and another two recipes in "Charleston Receipts."
Likened by Saveur magazine to British potted shrimp, shrimp paste is typically made with butter, sherry, lemon juice and red pepper, whether in the form of hot sauce or powdered cayenne. Popular additions include dry mustard, mayonnaise, nutmeg and Worcestershire sauce.
Shrimp paste most frequently appears on sandwiches, crackers and celery sticks, but it originated as a breakfast item, designed to be spun into hot, buttery grits or sliced and served cold alongside a bowlful.
Although shrimp paste is now usually scooped into a crock or bowl for serving, it's very sculptable, and 1970s food stylists built impressive shrimp paste domes. In 1977, a St. Petersburg paper ran a picture of a towering refrigerated shrimp paste mold, primed for slicing, and hailed the dish as "one of the glories of the (Charleston) region that pays tribute to America's first industry with its spicy goodness."
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