While visiting Thailand, my desire to bring home the best shrimp paste led me to an elderly seller and to a young man who made the paste. Shrimp paste is a necessary binder used in innumerable seasoning pastes in Thai cooking, and these two people's connection to shrimp paste had, in fact, become a crucial binder in their own lives. For the elderly seller, shrimp paste kept her linked with her family after her marriage. It helped her earn an income independent of her abusive wealthy husband. The shrimp paste maker married and thereby found a profession that he loves. Eventually, he became the sole maker of this ancient paste in his wife's family, carrying on their 150-year-old tradition.
Once made with care and pride only by families, today shrimp paste is mass-produced in factories. The change affects not only the quality and taste of Thai cooking, but also food-related tradition and culture. The elderly seller's livelihood is waning, and the young man who is the elderly seller's source, is now the last of a long line of makers of this ancient ingredient.