Thursday, June 13, 2013

Jiangsu's perfectly crunchy shrimp... with no batter

This is one of my all-time favorite ways to eat shrimp. Many places in China have their own versions—Sichuan’s addition of lots of chunky fresh chilies and garlic is always a winner—but this version from Jiangsu really appeals to me because the sweetness of the shrimp shines through, the entire shells are as crisp and edible as potato chips, and the balance is perfect from every angle.

To be honest, I usually don’t care for what passes in most restaurants for salt-and-pepper shrimp. Even if the crustaceans are of good quality, which is never guaranteed even if they are swimming (see Tips), the shells are either not crunchy enough or the meat is overcooked or there’s too much salt or the oil is not fresh. 

Yes, I am definitely cranky when it comes to shrimp, but with good reason: when this dish is done well and done right, it is heavenly.

That sandy vein
With all of this breathless praise, you might expect these shrimp to also be difficult. They’re not. The only thing that is sort of a slog is deveining the shrimp, but once you get the hang of snipping though the backs and slipping out the sandy intestine, this also can proceed pretty quickly.

Make this a couple of times for your family just to get the hang of it, and then you will soon be looking forward to displaying your shrimp mojo the next time guests show up for dinner.

Crunchy salt-and-pepper shrimp
Jiāoyán sū xiā  椒鹽酥蝦
Serves 4

8 ounces shrimp (31 – 40 count, or smaller if you like) with shells and tails on, preferably with heads (see Tips)
1 tablespoon Shaoxing rice wine
2 tablespoons cornstarch
2 to 3 cups frying oil, preferably rice bran oil (used is fine here if it smells good)
½ teaspoon fine sea salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 green onion, trimmed and finely chopped
1 clove garlic, peeled and finely chopped

1. First prep the shrimp. If they have their heads on, use kitchen shears to snip off the pointy ends just behind the eyes, because these will explode in the hot oil, and also remove any long feelers. Shrimp with or without their heads should be allowed to keep their shells, tails, and feet. Working on the shrimp one-by-one, use the shears to snip down the back from just behind the head down to about ¼ inch from the tail; your shears should also cut slightly into the meat itself so that the sandy vein is exposed. (This will become easier as you get used to how shrimp are put together.) Use the tip of the shears to lift out the sandy vein and discard. Repeat with the rest of the shrimp until all are prepped.
Marinate shrimp

2. Place the shrimp in a colander and rinse them under cool running water to wash off any debris and sand. Have a medium work bowl ready as you use a paper towel to dry them off, pressing down slightly on them to squeeze out any extra water. Place the dried-off shrimp in the bowl. Toss them with the rice wine and then the cornstarch. Let them marinate while you prepare the rest of the ingredients. Have everything ready before you start frying the shrimp, as it proceeds very quickly.

3. Have a wok ready as well as wooden chopsticks, a Chinese spider or slotted spoon, a serving dish, and a bowl for the used oil. Pour the oil into the wok and place it on high heat. When a chopstick inserted into the hot oil is immediately covered with bubbles, add about half of the shrimp, dropping them individually by their tails gently into the oil so that you don’t get splashed. Lower the heat to medium and fry the shrimp quickly until they are a golden brown all over. Remove them with a slotted spoon and chopsticks to the serving dish. Repeat with the other half of the shrimp, adjusting the heat as necessary.

Salt 'n peppa
4. When all of the shrimp are fried and crispy, pour out all of the oil into the waiting bowl, leaving only a film of oil inside the wok. Heat the wok over high, add the salt, pepper, green onion, and garlic, and quickly toss these together for a few seconds to take the raw edge off of the aromatics. Add all of the shrimp, toss them quickly just to coat them with the seasoning, and then serve immediately. All of the shrimp can be eaten; the legs in particular are nice and brittle.


The absolutely most important ingredient here is, of course, the shrimp. Get the best you can find.

What to look for in shrimp: alive is best, but only if they are wild and from unpolluted waters.