Mantis shrimp are fascinating creatures. Known as lai liu ha (p***ing prawns, because of their tendency to squirt water when picked up), they are aggressive, move extremely fast and capture their prey by knocking them out. They hit other creatures with such force that scientists compare their speed with that of a bullet. They're also delicious, with sweet, tender meat that, unfortunately, isn't easy to extract from the shell. At seafood restaurants, the chefs will usually split open the shell along the belly, if serving the mantis shrimp whole, or cut them into pieces, which makes it easier to get the meat out.
Salt and pepper mantis shrimp (pictured)
Mantis shrimp are sold alive - look for active ones that move around a lot. I read somewhere that freezing crabs briefly puts them in a sleeping state, so their death is less painful. I tried that with mantis shrimp and after only about 15 minutes, they were totally relaxed: the bodies straightened out, instead of being curled.
6 large mantis shrimp, about 18cm long
Oil, for frying
Cornstarch, as needed
15-20 grams garlic, minced
15-20 grams red and green bird's-eye chillies, sliced into 3mm-wide rounds
5 grams fine sea salt
½ tsp freshly ground black pepper, or to taste
Fresh coriander leaves (optional), to garnish
Put the shrimp in a large plastic bag leaving plenty of room so they can spread out. Don't seal the bag - the shrimp need to breathe. Place the bag in the freezer for 15 minutes. When the shrimp are relaxed and straight, put them on a cutting board and cut each one into three or four pieces. Dry the shells as much as possible with paper towels, including the feathery appendages on the bottom of the shrimp.
Heat a wok and add oil to the depth of about 8cm. Put some cornstarch in a bowl. Dip the cut ends of the mantis shrimp into the cornstarch and shake off the excess. When the oil is 180 degrees Celsius, fry the shrimp several pieces at a time. Fry the pieces for about five minutes, turning them over as needed. Drain the shrimp on paper towels. Use a fine slotted skimmer to scoop out as much cornstarch from the oil as possible. Fry the remaining shrimp the same way.
After cooking all the shrimp, pour the oil and cornstarch from the wok; there's no need to clean it. Pour about 45ml of fresh oil into the wok and set it over a high flame. Add the garlic and chillies and fry until the garlic turns pale golden. Stir in the salt and pepper, then put all the mantis shrimp into the wok. Stir-fry for about a minute then turn off the heat. Use tongs to arrange the shrimp on a serving plate then sprinkle with the garlic and chillies left in the wok. Garnish with coriander and serve immediately. Serves four to six as part of a Chinese meal.
Mantis shrimp with linguine, butter, garlic and chilli flakes
12 mantis shrimp, about 10cm long
200 grams linguine
60 grams unsalted butter
1 medium-sized garlic clove, thinly sliced
¼ tsp chilli flakes, or to taste
Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
A small handful of Italian parsley, chopped
Freeze the shrimp for 15 minutes as in the first recipe. Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil, add the linguine and cook it just long enough so the pasta is pliable - it will still be hard. Use tongs to remove the pasta from the water. Put the mantis shrimp in the same cooking water and boil for one minute. Use a slotted skimmer to take the mantis shrimp from the water and put them in a colander set over a bowl. Reserve the cooking water. As soon as the shrimp are cool enough to handle, use kitchen scissors to slit the length of the belly shell, taking care not to cut into the flesh.
Melt the butter in a large, wide skillet set over a low flame. As soon as the butter starts to sizzle, add the garlic and cook it until soft, stirring often. Turn the heat to medium then add the chilli flakes and stir for 30 seconds. Lay the shrimp in the pan then top with the pasta and sprinkle lightly with salt. Add 100ml of the pasta/shrimp cooking water then bring to the boil. Lower the heat, put the lid on the pan and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the pasta is al dente. If it seems too dry, add a little more of the pasta water. When it's ready, the buttery liquid should just lightly coat the pasta; if the sauce is too watery, remove the pasta and shrimp from the pan and simmer the liquid until it's reduced. Add some pepper then taste the ingredients for seasoning and sprinkle in more salt, if needed. Add the parsley then stir all the ingredients together before serving. Serves two.
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