I know food lovers in Hong Kong who turn up their noses at sizzling rice dishes, saying they are for tourists.
There is something rather showy about them: in restaurants, it is tableside service, with the waiter presenting two platters – one with the rice cakes, the other with meat or seafood in a runny sauce. The saucy food is poured over the rice cakes to create steam and a loud sizzle that makes other diners look over to see what’s going on.
But the fact it is showy doesn’t mean it can’t be good. The rice cakes used for this dish shouldn’t be mistaken for the chewy ones made of pounded rice that are similar in texture to mochi. Sizzling rice cakes are light and crisp, and you can see each individual grain. While sizzling rice cakes are not difficult to make, they do take time (it involves completely drying out cooked rice that's been pressed into flat cakes, then frying them), I would recommend buying them. Search for them online, or look in the Chinese section of supermarkets.
Advice on the sizzle: there won’t be much of one if you use rice cakes are room temperature. If you heat them in the oven you will get a bit of a sizzle, and for a better sizzle deep-fry them, then pour the sauce over them while everything is hot.
But the secret to a big, dramatic sizzle doesn’t lie in the rice cakes: you get this from pouring the sauce onto a heated cast-iron plate. Be warned, though – it’s messy because the sauce will splatter when it hits the metal. I am satisfied with a more modest sizzle and less to clean up.
Doubanjiang – spicy bean sauce – varies in spiciness and saltiness according to the brand. If the one you have is very salty, use the smaller amount of soy sauce.
Remove the heads and shells from the prawns (save the heads and shells to make prawn stock or prawn oil for another dish). Make a shallow cut along the back of the prawn, then remove and discard the vein.
Put the prawns in a bowl, add 10ml (2 tsp) of rice wine and mix well. Set aside while preparing the other ingredients.
Thinly slice the onion and garlic cloves. Finely julienne the ginger.
Trim off and discard the tips from the snow peas or sugar peas, then cut them on the diagonal into 1.25cm (½ in) pieces. Cut the spring onions into 2.5cm (1 in) lengths.
Put the Sichuan peppercorns in a small unoiled skillet. Place the skillet over a medium flame and toast the peppercorns until fragrant, stirring almost constantly.
Put the Sichuan peppercorns into a mortar – I use a Japanese suribachi (grinding bowl). When the peppercorns are cool, grind them to a rough powder, removing and discarding any seeds.
Put the doubanjiang and ketchup in a bowl and stir in the sugar. Add the soy sauce, sesame oil, white pepper and 10ml of rice wine. Mix in the Sichuan peppercorns and 120ml (½ cup) of warm water.
Put the cornflour in a small bowl and add 15ml (1 tbsp) of cool water.
Pour cooking oil to a depth of about 2.5cm (1 in) in a pan and heat it over a medium flame to 180 degrees Celsius (350 degrees Fahrenheit). Turn off the heat and set aside, so it is ready to fry the rice cakes when the prawns are ready.
Heat a wok over a high flame. Add 20ml (4 tsp) of cooking oil and when the oil is hot, add the sugar peas or snow peas. Stir-fry for about 30 seconds, then remove the vegetables from the wok, putting them on a plate, and leaving behind as much oil in the wok as possible.
Heat the wok again over a high flame and when it is hot, add the onion, garlic and ginger. Stir-fry for about 30 seconds, or until the onion starts to wilt.
Add the Sichuan peppercorn/doubanjiang/ketchup mixture to the wok and bring to a simmer. Cook for about 15 seconds, stirring often.
Stir in the shrimp and simmer until they turn pink and start to curl, then add the sugar peas or snow peas. Turn on the heat to low under the pan for frying the rice cakes.
Stir the cornflour and water mixture to recombine the ingredients, then drizzle about half of it into the wok. Stir the mixture in the wok constantly and simmer until the shrimp are fully cooked and the liquid is a light sauce consistency. If the sauce is too thin, stir in more of the cornflour mixture. Stir in the spring onions, then turn off the flame.
Fry the rice cakes a few at a time until they darken slightly. Briefly drain on paper towels, then place them on a serving platter.
Pour the prawn mixture over the hot rice cakes, add the coriander sprigs, if using, then serve.