The dish I am about to share with you is one of my personal favorites. I love it cooked using squid or shrimp (I will provide a separate article with it cooked using squid with more pictures of all the steps). Though I will say the meal looks more exotic with the rings and tentacles of small squid than the familiar grub-like form of cleaned shrimp tails. Salt and Pepper Shrimp is a Cantonese dish (Cantonese food tries to highlight the actual flavor of the food rather than sauces). It is often ordered in a restaurant by a group of people in addition to a few other meals and shared. My own love for this comes from eating very savory pieces of shrimp between mouthfuls of hot, steamed, white rice. That extra savory vs bland rice trade-off is hard to explain to most people. To me it can be compared to eating the crust in a chicken pot pie. You love the chicken and gravy – but that bland tasting crust with the gravy on it is irresistible. When I pick up a shrimp with a piece of green onion and maybe a section of hot chili pepper with chopsticks, my first instinct after I start chewing it is to take a clump of steamed rice from my rice bowl and follow that shrimp with it. This is even a tradition with Japanese cuisine. They enjoy food that plays well with plain rice. That means sometimes overly salty or savory food is presented that will be eaten with or alongside rice.
Salt and Pepper Shrimp needs to be cooked in a wok over extremely high heat. This is another one of those dishes you can’t cook on Momma’s stove. Oh you can do it I am sure, but the outside will be somewhat soggy unless you further toast it which, to my thinking, will dry it out too much. As I have said before in my Tools of an Asian Cook article, the low cost of these high heat burners (under $100) makes one worth investing in.
Above, starting from the left we have minced garlic with sliced red and green Thai chilis (fresh from my garden I might add), about 1 lb of cleaned, shelled and deveined shrimp, my dredge (whose ingredients I will share with you at the bottom of this article) and sliced green onions/scallions. A quick word on the dredge, by the way. My recipe uses monosodium glutamate (MSG) which is called “gourmet powder” in Chinese circles. It markedly affects the flavor of the food, making it more pronounced. While the authentic recipe does call for it, I do realize that some people may have a reaction or aversion to it. If you decide to make it like I do and include the MSG, please make sure your guests know there will be MSG in the dish. This will save some possible embarrassment later.
Now I want to cover some differences in how the shrimp get fried when making this the Chinese way as opposed to American frying. First of all – we use no egg. There will be no egg or buttermilk (it won’t need it). And the shrimp has to be rinsed and then pat dry with paper towels so that it is tacky and not wet. Note that in China this dish is often cooked with the shells left on. The high heat of the oil breaks down the cuticle of the shell and makes it easier to chew and digest. But in this article we will make ours sans shells. (though I encourage you to try it the other way if you get adventurous).
Once the shrimp are tacky/sticky to the fingers, it is time to dredge them. I like to do this a few at a time so that they all get well covered. You will notice in my picture that I have left the tail shells on. This gives people that can’t or won’t use chopsticks the ability to eat the shrimp as a finger food. In addition it looks nicer but you can make yours any way you want in your kitchen.
After you’ve dredged them all, gently shake off any excess dredge (you want them to just have a dusting on them and not look like those baby powdered Donettes we all ate as kids). Now for frying we want to do them in batches. Do not try and fry them all at once. I will use a 14″ Mandarin wok which is smaller and will use less oil than my Cantonese wok.
This particular wok is one I no longer have. If you look at my Tools of an Asian Cook article, you will see my new wok which is constructed entirely of metal. But for what I am demonstrating here right now, that is irrelevant. The first thing we want to do here is light the wok burner and turn the heat all the way up. We will need it at full power for this. After it sits on that heat for about 20 seconds, put about 1.5-2″ of peanut oil in it and wait about 30-40 seconds. You want the oil very hot. When you see it start to smoke, you can test the heat with one shrimp. Be very careful here as with the high temperatures you will be cooking with, the oil can catch fire. Have something nearby to cover the wok to choke off the fire if that happens. Do NOT put ANY water into the hot wok with oil!
As you can see, mine is now hot enough. So I add enough shrimp so that all the pieces are in the hot oil. Do not add more than that. If it takes 5-6 batches, the effort will be well worth it.
The oil above is VERY hot. These shrimp will be done in under 45 seconds. When they start to turn a golden color, it is time to take them out. Do not let them get brown,
A nice light golden color is what we are looking for. As you take each batch out, drain them on paper towels and put the next batch in. Repeat until all your shrimp are cooked this way.
When the shrimp are all done, pour out most of the oil (all but about 1 tablespoon) into a container for use later (I often use a clean coffee can here) and lower the heat to about 50%. Then dump all the aromatics in the wok and stir fry them until the garlic starts to get crispy. Then remove all of that and drain on paper towels. I like to then toss the aromatics in with the Shrimp as seen below.
At this point the shrimp are ready for serving. I like to give each diner a bowl of freshly steamed white rice to accompany this meal.
This is such an inviting dish and once you know what this tastes like – your mouth will water looking at the above image just like mine does. The smells are outrageous as well.
Now leave me to my repast, if you please…
Recipe is below:
Salt and Pepper Shrimp Recipe (serves 2-4 depending on if it is a side or a main dish).
- Steamed Japanese or Jasmine rice – enough for everyone to have at least one bowl full.
- 1 lb of peeled, deveined medium sized shrimp.
- 6 cloves of garlic minced.
- 3 scallions cut into 1/4″ slices.
- Sliced chili peppers to taste. Note you can use any chili peppers for this. I prefer my Thai chilis.
- About 2-2.5 cups peanut oil.
Ingredients for the Dredge
- 1/2 cup corn starch
- 1/2 cup rice flour
- 1-1.5 Tbs finely ground sea salt
- 2 Tbs fresh ground white Chinese peppercorns
- 1 Tbs fresh ground black peppercorns
- About 12 fresh ground Sichuan Peppercorns
- 1 tsp Monosodium Glutamate (optional but needed if you want optimal flavor. I do understand some people cannot abide it which is why it is optional).
- Put rice on to steam in whatever you plan to cook it in. A rice cooker is preferred.
- Put all the peppercorns (white, black and Sichuan) into a spice grinder or a mortar and pestle.
- Grind them all to a fine powder.
- Mix all ingredients for the dredge completely.
- Clean and devein shrimp (if necessary). Note that I prefer to buy the shrimp with shells on and freeze the shells after I remove them for making shrimp stock after I get about 2 lbs worth saved up.
- Rinse and pat all shrimp dry with paper towels. We want the shrimp dry enough so that the surface is tacky.
- Dredge the shrimp in the spiced flour mix.
- Ignite your wok burner and turn up to full power.
- Preheat a 14″ wok for 30 seconds before adding the peanut oil.
- Heat the oil up another 30-40 seconds until it starts to smoke.
- Fry the shrimp in batches – at this high heat it should take less than 45 seconds to fully cook each batch. They should be golden (not brown) on the surface.
- Remove each batch and drain on paper towels.
- When all shrimp are done, pour out all but about 1 Tbs of oil into a container to save for later.
- Cut the heat on the burner by 50%.
- Fry all aromatics until the garlic is golden and crispy. For best results I have found that cooking the garlic first works best. Then cook the remaining ingredients for maybe 10 seconds in whatever oil is left over from cooking the garlic.
- Drain the aromatics on paper towels.
- Toss the shrimp with the aromatics and serve immediately.
- To serve this as it is done traditionally, you will want to present the shrimp on a large plate with a substrate of large fresh lettuce leaves (lettuce absorbs oil) and serve with spicy-hot chili paste in oil.
- Provide steamed white rice to all diners to accompany the shrimp.
Thank you for your patronage!