Thursday, November 1, 2012

“Fish-aroma” prawns

I happened to find myself with some nice prawns, and the first thing I wanted to do is make the following dish, one that you rarely find in even Sichuan restaurants because prawns are considered just too expensive, I guess. 

But this is one heck of a way to emphasize the crisp succulence of prawns, as the crispy veggies and tangy sauce serve as the perfect backups. 

It's sort of like Diana Ross... she was never as good as when she had the Supremes ooh-la-la-ing behind her. They added harmony and high notes and low notes that Miss Diana just couldn't do on her own, and oh how I miss Mary Wilson.

I use pickled chilies here, as is traditional, although some Chinese chefs now use solely hot fermented bean sauce. Both are good, but there’s a reason for the pickled chilies… 
Some lovely prawns

It all has to do with why this dish is called “fish aroma” or "fish fragrance" or however you want to translate that inscrutable name, yuxiang:

Some cookbooks say that the name came about because this is a sauce that is used for fish, which is not too bad an explanation. But I found a better argument: the traditional source for heat in this dish was a kind of pickled chilies flavored with the carp called jiyu. This fish was fermented in the vat with the chilies to add extra umami -- or savory, or xianwei -- tastes. Like Vietnamese fish sauce, this boosted the meaty undertones and added additional flavor. Hence yuxiang

I use both the pickled chilies and hot bean sauce here, but with the emphasis on the pickled chilies. They have a purity of flavor that is hard to beat, but the hot bean sauce gives good color and body to the sauce, so there's a bit of that in there, too. Best of both worlds. 

The crunchy bits
When I make this, I put in the maximum number of pickled chilies, but that is not for everyone, of course, so adjust the heat to your taste.

There is not a whole lot of sauce on these prawns, which is the way I like it. Most restaurants give you a goopy layer that is too much cornstarch and too little flavor other than sweet and sour. Instead, this is just like one of Cindy Birdsong's sequined numbers: a whole lotta fire and glitter and color, but here it's courtesy of the generous use of crunchy vegetables and aromatics. 

I do get carried away by good food and Motown.


“Fish-aroma” prawns 
Yuxiang duixia 魚香對蝦  
Sichuan
Serves 4 to 6 as an entree

Prawns:
1 pound fresh or frozen prawns, preferably with their tails still attached (see Tips)
1 egg white, lightly beaten
¼ teaspoon sea salt
2 teaspoons cornstarch
2 cups frying oil

Vegetables:
4 fresh water chestnuts (see Tips)
4 fresh Chinese black mushrooms or wood ear mushrooms, stems removed
2 to 8 Pickled Red Chilies, or store-bought pickled whole chilies
8 cloves garlic
4 green onions, trimmed
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh peeled ginger

Sauce:
5 teaspoons sugar
4 teaspoons rice vinegar
2 teaspoons regular soy sauce
½ cup filtered water
2 teaspoons cornstarch
2 teaspoons hot fermented bean paste (la doubanjiang)
Flash fried

1. Clean and devein the prawns. Pat them dry with a paper towel, place them in a medium work bowl, and toss in the egg white, salt, and cornstarch. Let the prawns marinate while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.

2. Trim the water chestnuts and chop both them and the mushrooms into fine (eighth inch) pieces; place in a small work bowl. Slice the pickled chilies into thin rings, peel and chop the garlic into very small pieces, chop the white parts of the onions into thin rings, and place these plus the ginger into a small work bowl. Cut the green parts of the onions into thin rings and keep them separate, as they will be added to the prawns at the last minute.

3. Mix the sugar, vinegar, soy sauce, water, and cornstarch together in a small bowl, but don’t add the bean paste at this time.

4. Prepare a Chinese spider or slotted spoon, a bowl for the hot oil, a bowl to hold the cooked prawns, and a small serving platter. Heat the oil in a wok over high until it bubbles and add the prawns. Stir them around in the hot oil for a minute or two until the tails are pink and the bodies have turned opaque. (Don’t overcook them, as they will continue to cook from the residual heat and also will cook a tiny bit more when added to the sauce.) Remove the shrimp from the oil with the spider and place them in a bowl.

5. Drain off all but 2 tablespoons of the oil from the wok. With the heat still on high, add the chilies, garlic, whites of the onions, and ginger to the oil and quickly stir-fry them for a few seconds to release their fragrance. Add the fermented bean paste and toss everything together, then add the water chestnuts and mushrooms. Quickly toss these until the mushrooms start to look cooked, and then add the prawns and sauce. Working very fast, stir them over the heat until the sauce thickens, which should only take a couple of seconds; taste and adjust seasoning. Add the green parts of the onions, toss once, and arrange the prawns on your serving platter. Serve immediately.

Tips

Sweet prawns & a jazzy sauce
Get wild-caught prawns (or large shrimp), as these are much, much, much cleaner and healthier than farmed ones. Frozen are fine; just defrost them and then clean the prawns. Be sure and remove the sandy intestine that runs down the back. To do this, lightly slit the back open, and you should see a black line. Use the tip of a paring knife to pull it completely out. Don’t skip this step, or your prawns and shrimp will be gritty and awful.

Nothing can compare to fresh water chestnuts. The canned ones taste like a can and nothing else, so I never, ever recommend them. If you can’t find fresh water chestnuts, use some jicama instead, which tastes a whole lot like water chestnuts and even has a similar texture. If that isn't available, a firm pear or apple would work in a pinch. What you want is a gentle sweetness and a light crunch against the prawns.

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