Sunday, December 5, 2010

Bombs over Tokyo - when shrimp and history collide

Like I mentioned late last month, a dish called Bombs over Tokyo was a highlight of a dinner we gave for a bunch of friends. It's one of those great Chinese dishes that sport an intriguing name, but this one's even better because not too many dishes address the sense of sound. We of course play plenty of attention to taste, scent, and appearance, but this is one of the few that actually entertain the ears. When boiling sauce hits the freshly fried rice crusts, it’s explosive and fun. The fact that it tastes fabulous doesn’t hurt, either.
Known by many names in Chinese, such as the not-very-humble Best Dish in the World (Tianxia diyi cai) or the very pedestrian Rice Crust Shrimp (Guoba xiaren), and in English more often than not as Sizzling Rice Shrimp or Rice Crust Shrimp, this is a dish with so many monikers that it seems to be part of the FBI relocation program. Its most well-known name, though, and the one that's used here, came about in the 30's and 40's when Shanghai and Nanjing were the focus of some of Japan’s bloodiest attention.

But history has a way of changing who it is we’re angry with at the moment. So, by the time I arrived in Taiwan in the 70’s, Japan had come to be seen as less of an enemy and more of an important trading partner, and therefore the name of this dish was changed to Bombs over Moscow. The day finally came when Carter recognized Beijing, and I was always just terribly grateful that following the recognition of Beijing over Taipei, no one ever thought to call this dish Bombs over Washington.

Anyway, when you get ready to serve this to your guests, tell them the story behind it so that their senses and appetites are whetted. It will make the explosion on your dining room table all that more enjoyable!

Sorry that there's no picture of the final dish here. Everything comes together at the last second and has to be served immediately. There's no time to photograph anything once the rice crust is fried, as it is then doused with the sauce and served up while it's still is busy making a racket. Rest assured, it looks as delicious as it tastes... and sounds!

Bombs over Tokyo 
Hongzha Dongjing  轟炸東京
Serves 8

Rice crusts:
1½ cups short-grain rice
Filtered water as needed
A small amount of fresh vegetable oil

8 ounces small raw shrimp, shelled and deveined
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 egg white, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon cornstarch
4 ounces chicken breast
2 cups chicken stock
Salt to taste
2 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine
2 tablespoons sugar
6 tablespoons ketchup
2 teaspoons roasted sesame oil
2 teaspoons rice vinegar
¼ cup chopped mushrooms
2 tablespoons cornstarch dissolved in ¼ cup stock
Final touches:
4 cups fresh peanut or vegetable oil
¼ cup cooked baby peas or fresh soybeans
1. Start this recipe at least a day before you wish to serve it. First make the rice crusts, which will need time to thoroughly dry out before you can fry them. Cook the rice according to the directions on the package, using either in a rice cooker or in a saucepan. Lightly oil a large, flat-bottomed frying pan. 

2. Preheat the oven to 175°F. When the rice has cooled enough to handle easily, spread about half an inch of the cooked rice over the bottom of the frying pan. (You may need to do this in two or three batches.) Don’t smash the rice down, but use your wetted hands and a wet silicon spatula to gently flatten it. Cook the rice over medium heat, shaking the pan occasionally to keep the rice from sticking. Do this until the bottom of the rice starts to crackle and turns an opaque white, as well as golden brown in patches. Flip the rice over (it’s okay if it breaks) and cook the other side the same way. 

3. Place the cooked rice on a large baking sheet and place it in the oven. Dry fry the rest of the rice in the same way, and then dry out the rice crusts in the oven for a few hours until they are completely hard and crisp. Break the rice crust into pieces that are around 2" square. (You can make the crusts ahead of time. Just let them cool off before storing them in a plastic bag in the refrigerator, where they'll keep forever.) 

4. Carefully rinse the shrimp, being sure to clean out all of the sand in their backs. Pat the shrimp dry with a paper towel, place them in a bowl, and toss them with the salt and egg white. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon cornstarch over the shrimp and toss them again to coat well.

5. Remove any skin and cartilage from the chicken breasts and cut them into inch-wide strips. Heat the stock in a large saucepan, adding salt to taste. Add the chicken to the stock, turn the heat to a gentle simmer, and poach the chicken until it is done. Remove the chicken from the stock, cool it slightly, and shred the chicken into fine pieces. Bring the stock to a boil again and stir in the rice wine, sugar, ketchup, sesame oil, vinegar, and mushrooms, as well as the shredded chicken; taste and adjust the flavor as needed.  (You can prepare the dish ahead of time up to this point.)

6. About 10 minutes before you serve this dish, put the rice crusts within reach by the stove, the sauce in a saucepan, and two large serving bowls and a Chinese spider next to the stove.

7. Start by heating up the oil in a wok over medium-high heat. As soon as the oil starts to shimmer, go back to the stock, bring it to a gentle simmer, stir in the cornstarch slurry until the sauce is thick and glossy, stir the shrimp into the stock one at a time so that they don’t stick together, and finally add the peas or soybeans.

8. While the shrimp are poaching in the stock, the oil should have arrived at the right temperature. To test whether it is, drop a few grains of the rice crust into the hot oil; they should immediately puff up and rise to the surface without burning. If the oil is too hot, add a bit more oil; if it’s too cool, increase the heat. 

9. Add the rice crust squares and any large crumbs to the hot oil and stir them constantly. As soon as they expand, use a Chinese spider to remove the rice crusts to a large, rimmed serving bowl. You may need to do this in two or three batches, but make haste, as the rice needs to be hot in order to explode when it's covered with the sauce.

10. Immediately pour the hot shrimp sauce into another large bowl and bring both the sauce and rice crusts to the table in separate dishes.  Place the bowl with the rice crusts on the dining table and quickly pour the shrimp sauce over the rice crusts while they are still piping hot; you (and your guests) will be rewarded with loud crackling noise. 

11. Serve the rice crusts and the sauce in small soup bowls and eat them right away while the rice is still crisp.


  1. My father was in the United States Air Force and was stationed in Taipei Taiwan twice. We used to visit the Grand Hotel and have dinner there about once every other month. I loved Bombs of Moscow, Minced Pigeon and everything else on the menu. For a kid under 10 years old I was more than willing to try almost anything. Mongolian BBQ was by far my favorite dish in Taiwan.

    Steve McCord

    1. Sounds like we share many delicious memories! Thanks for the kind note, Steve.