Sunday, March 25, 2012

Deep fried calamari Taiwan style

Sometimes the simplest preparations are the best, and this recipe is no exception. Smaller squid, or calamari, reward just about any sort of quick cooking with delicious results.

Squid by themselves are full flavored, and so they can be prepared, as here, with little more than a dipping sauce to make them complete, or they can be cooked quickly with a big handful of savory elements, their texture and lovely briny flavor more than a match for even garlic, ginger, and chili peppers. Very soon I'll provide a recipe for the fancier preparation, but today we'll look at a particularly easy way to cook squid: deep frying with just a dusting of sweet potato flour.

As we've seen before, sweet potato flour is popular in southern China, and it is especially beloved in Taiwan, where it makes almost every deep fried protein a thing of beauty.

Sprinkle on sweet potato flour
Unlike the cornstarch used in the previous recipe for chicken wings, which fries up to a thin, smooth shell, sweet potato flour is thick and crunchy all by itself. No need to fuss around with a batter here; just toss the squid in an egg white and the flour, and then carefully drop them in hot oil. That's it.

There are, of course, little things you should be aware of in order to make this dish a success. But they are so few that even a beginner cook will be able to serve these with pride the first time around.

A couple of posts back we looked at the way to prepare squid, so if you haven't read that yet, now is a good time to check it out. Squid are, as I note, not that difficult to prep, and once they are ready, this dish can be on the table in a matter of minutes. Just be sure to have that beer chilled beforehand.

Deep fried calamari 
Suzha xiaojuan 酥炸小卷  
Southern Fujian, Taiwan
Serves 4 to 6 as an appetizer or bar snack

2 cups (or so) cleaned calamari or smallish (6 inches or less) squid
1 egg white
Sweet potato flour (diguafen or fanshufen)
Frying oil
Calamari coated with flour
Sea salt or fleur de sel
Dipping sauces (see below)

1. Cut the tentacle "flowers" in half at their base if they are at all large. Then, cut the calamari tubes (or bodies) into rings that are about ¾-inch wide. Lay the calamari out on a couple sheets of paper towel and pat off any moisture.

2. Place the egg white in a work bowl and beat it until it is loose and foamy. Toss in the calamari and use your fingers to mix them around so that each piece is lightly coated with the egg white. Sprinkle some sweet potato flour on the calamari and toss them with your fingers, adding more flour as you go until each piece is nicely coated. Prepare a heatproof plate covered with either tempura paper or a couple of sheets of paper towel. Heat an oven or toaster oven to about 225 F.

Gently lower into the hot oil
3. Heat a couple of cups of oil in a wok or frying pan over medium heat until wooden chopsticks inserted in the oil immediately are covered with small bubbles. Hold a lid or spatter screen in one hand while you gently slide a small handful of the calamari into the oil. Immediately use that same hand to separate the pieces with your chopsticks, but keep the lid or screen between you and the hot oil so that any moisture in the squid doesn't pop into your face. Gently move the calamari around in the oil until they are separate from each other, and fry on both sides until golden and crisp. Remove the pieces to the paper covered plate as they are done, and keep the fried calamari hot by placing them in the heated oven. Repeat these steps to fry the rest of the calamari.

4. When all of the calamari has been fried, serve it hot with some dipping sauces and cold beer.

Dipping sauces

Ketchup with some finely diced raw garlic and a bit of soy sauce provides traditional Taiwanese flavors.

If you like mayo and spice, mix some sweet chili sauce into mayonnaise, preferably Kewpie brand

The photo at the top shows one of my favorite dipping sauces: lots of garlic lightly fried in a bit of fresh peanut oil, with balsamic vinegar and soy sauce added at the end.

Tips

Fry until golden
Get the calamari as dry as possible, as moisture will explode in the hot oil. Water tends to cling to the insides of the tubes, or bodies, of the squid, so lightly press down on them as you pat them dry.

After you get the hang of this, you can vary the flavors by adding things like five spice powder, chili powder, or other spices to the flour. Raw garlic shouldn't be in there, though, as it will burn in the hot oil and turn bitter; save it for the sauce.

Do not cook more than a small handful at a time in a wok, as otherwise the larger amount of calamari will lower the temperature and start sweating rather than frying. They will then take a longer time to crisp up -- that is, until all of the moisture evaporates -- and the calamari will toughen up. So, just fry up small amounts at one time.

If you are preparing lots of squid here, consider using a couple of wider, deeper frying pans, or even a deep-fry cooker.

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