Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Succulent Cantonese fried shrimp balls

You wouldn't think it at first, but American nuns do on occasion come up with some really remarkable Chinese food. 

I know, I didn't make the equation first, either. But then again, the only nuns I had had ever known in the Far East were stationed in Hong Kong, a pair of Maryknoll sisters who were more interested in education than cooking, although one of them had the most serious jones for Oreos that I have ever seen. I am not exaggerating. That was the one thing absolutely every visitor had to bring her from Stateside. Other than that, she was the most straight-up nun you have ever seen.

Light, crunchy & succulent
I also ended up wrestling with her over the check in a dim sum restaurant in front of many horrified and, I am sure, highly amused Chinese people. But that is another story for another time. I digress.

The point of my story was that I just ran across an old cookbook from the Fifties written by some American Benedictine nuns who had been stationed in Beijing and Kaifeng (Henan province), and they spent all of World War II in a Japanese concentration camp. Pretty hardy women, if you ask me. 

After the war, they returned to Kaifeng, but the civil war pushed them to Shanghai, Taiwan, and finally to Japan, where they opened a cooking school to make ends meet. They eventually wrote that cookbook, The Art of Chinese Cooking, which is very much out of print but lots of fun to look at if you ever do run across it. And, if the name Benedictine is ringing certain culinary bells in your brain, that is probably because of the liqueur Bénédictine that was created by some of their monks in France. 
Main ingredients

I have been searching for ages for a good shrimp ball recipe, but none really made me delighted for one reason or another. And then I found this lovely little recipe. Granted, the original one has no seasoning other than salt, but this was, after all, written during the Eisenhower Administration, a time when garlic and ginger just weren't part of polite society.

How times have changed, and how happy I am that they have!

What the sisters did here that I like so much is to make the recipe half shrimp and half water chestnuts. It's a beautiful balance of crunch and juice, sweet and savory. I've then infused it with my usual arsenal of Cantonese aromatics -- ginger, garlic, green onion, pepper -- and then serve it with roasted ground Sichuan pepper and salt, which adds just the right bit of musty spice and salt.

Finely hand chop the shrimp
Do note that these shrimp balls are very different from the smooth, bouncy shrimp balls that you find in hot pots and soups; these are very delicate and are meant to be savored as little jewels, although you can tart them up with sauces, if you like. A light, sweet and sour sauce would be perfect over these, as would a faintly garlicky soy and rice wine sauce, and both should be gently thickened with cornstarch so that they cling to the shrimp balls.

This is yet another one of those little entrees that, once you master it, you can make it your own and transform it in infinite ways to fit your palate and the occasion.

Fried shrimp balls Cantonese style 
Guangshi zhaxiaqiu 廣式炸蝦球  
Makes about 30 shrimp balls

1 pound shelled shrimp (see Tips)
9 to 10 fresh water chestnuts, or half a jicama (see Tips)
White part of 1 green onion
1 clove garlic
The mixture
1 teaspoon finely minced ginger
1 large (2 tablespoons) egg white
1 tablespoons cornstarch
½ teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon rice wine
A few grinds fresh black or white pepper
3 or 4 cups frying oil
Ground roasted Sichuan pepper salt for dipping

1. Clean and devein the shrimp. Pat them dry and chop them finely with a cleaver or knife (see Tips). Place the chopped shrimp in a medium work bowl and keep the shrimp cool.

2. Wash, peel, and finely chop the chestnuts as directed here.  Add them to the shrimp.

Chopped water chestnuts
3. Finely mince the green onion and garlic, and add them to the shrimp and water chestnuts, as well as the ginger, egg white, cornstarch, salt, rice wine, and pepper.  Mix them together lightly so that the mixture is homogeneous but not mushy.

4. Have a paper-towel covered baking sheet placed next to the stove and heat the oven to 225 degrees F. Heat the oil in a wok over medium heat. You don't want the heat too high, as then the shrimp balls will brown quickly without cooking through. Test the oil by inserting wooden chopsticks in the oil; they should gently bubble around the edges. Add ping-pong ball size drops of the mixture to the oil (very appropriate, yes?), keeping them spaced apart while the shrimp is still raw, as they will stick together at that point. Adjust the heat so that the shrimp balls slowly brown in about 10 minutes. Remove them from the oil as they brown and place them on the paper towel and then in the oven to keep warm. Repeat with the rest of the mixture until all of the shrimp balls have been fried. 

5. Serve the shrimp balls hot with little dishes of the ground roasted Sichuan pepper salt.


Fry the shrimp balls
Use wild caught shrimp rather than farmed shrimp. Always. Always. Always.

Don't use a food processor to chop the shrimp or the water chestnuts. You will end up with mush rather than have that exquisite texture that is the nature of shrimp and water chestnuts. Give them the chance to please you.

If fresh water chestnuts are not available, use jicama. If jicama is not available, do without. Do not use canned water chestnuts. Don't ask me again.

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