Dried shrimp (海米, hai mi) are shrimp that have been sun-dried until very small for preservation purposes. They are used in many Asian cuisines, to impart a unique umami and seafood-like taste. In Chinese cuisine, dried shrimp are extensively used in the northern and southern cuisines. For example, it is one of the ingredients used in the Cantonese XO sauce. It can be used in stir-fried and braised dishes, soups, salads, dumplings, etc., to add flavor.
Types of dried shrimp
Dried shrimp can generally be separated into three categories – shelled shrimp, shell-on shrimp, and tiny shell-on shrimp (虾米皮, xia mi pi).
In Chinese cooking, recipes calling for dried shrimp usually mean those of the shelled variety, and sometimes the tiny shell-on variety.
In Cantonese cuisine, shelled dried shrimp are further classified into different grades. The higher the grade, the better the quality of the shrimp and the larger they are. The price increases with size.
On the other hand, dried shrimp with the shell on are often called for in southeast Asian and Indian cuisines.
How to use
There are many ways to use dried shrimp; some require soaking before using, while some do not.
As a rule of thumb, dried shrimp always require pre-soaking before cooking, so they can release more flavor. For soups and braised dishes, you can soak the dried shrimp for a shorter duration (30 mins to 1 hour) because they will loosen up during cooking. If you’re using the dried shrimp in dumpling filling or meatballs, you’ll need to soak them longer (3 hours to overnight).
Some recipes, such as Pad Thai, only require pounding the shrimp to loosen their texture before adding them into the stir fry.
How to buy
Before purchasing, you need to make sure whether the recipe is calling for shrimp with or without the shell. In most Chinese cuisines, including on this website, the intent is for shelled (i.e. without shell) shrimp, unless specially mentioned.
To select dried shrimp, try to pick big ones that are meaty and tight, and oily in texture. Avoid those that are gray or brown or look washed-out. If the shrimp are too dry, they might have been sitting on the shelf for too long and lost their flavor. They should have a fresh pink color without being too red (which would mean the shrimp were dyed with artificial coloring). It should smell fresh and like the sea, not old and stale. When you taste it, it should be springy and not be too salty.
The quality of dried shrimp matters a lot in Chinese cooking. If you’re using shrimp that are past their prime, it will result in an unpleasant flavor in your final dish.
You can find dried shrimp in most Asian markets.
Always store dried shrimp in the fridge, because they are fresh ingredients without preservatives. If you have extra shrimp and aren’t going to use them soon, you should store them in the freezer.
Their shelf life can vary a lot, depending on whether the shrimp were fresh when you purchased them and whether there was salt added during the production process. If you purchase vacuum-packaged shrimp and store them in the fridge once opened, they can last a month or two. If you smell a stale flavor when you open the package, you should not use them in your cooking.