Shrimp and prawns differ in several ways, including anatomically, but when it comes to cooking, most people use them interchangeably, unless a specific type is called for (such as carabineros and tiger prawns).
When I buy them in the wet market, I look for freshness and liveliness, rather than counting the number of claws they have, or checking the shell to see if the segments overlap each other from head to tail or if the segment in the middle overlaps the ones on either side of it. Although I say “shrimp” in the following recipes, you can also use prawns.
Salt and pepper shrimp
The correct way to eat salt and pepper shrimp is without peeling away the shells – where all the flavour is. If the shrimp are cooked right, you can eat almost the entire thing: pull off the head, suck out the juices and nibble away the crispest bits (sometimes the whole head is edible), then eat the body, shells and all.
For this recipe, don’t buy shrimp (or prawns) that are too large, because the shells will be thicker and therefore less tender. I like small ones (with a body length of about 4cm) but that means there’s more of them to devein. The body shouldn’t be longer than 6cm.
500 grams fresh shrimp
3-4 red banana chillies
2-4 red bird’s-eye chillies
5-6 garlic cloves
About 20 grams spring onions
100 grams cornstarch
80ml soda water, chilled
3 grams (about 1 tsp) fine-grain sea salt
1.5 grams (about 1 tsp) freshly ground black pepper
1 Rinse the shrimp under cool running water, then drain them. Leave the heads and shells on, but devein them: bend the shrimp forward into a curl, and at the base of the back, lift up the segment of the shell closest to the tail, to expose the flesh.
Make a small slit in the flesh, then use the tip of a toothpick to hook the vein and slowly and carefully pull it out. Don’t tug it too fast, or it will break. If you like, trim the shrimp of the long antennae and legs. (I prefer to keep these on, because when fried, they become crisp.)
2 Cut the banana chillies into 3mm-thick rings and the bird’s-eye chillies into 2mm-thick rings; with both, shake out and discard as many seeds as possible as you slice them. Roughly chop the garlic and cut the spring onions about 5mm thick.
3 Pour oil to the depth of about 5cm in a wok and heat to 175 degrees Celsius. While the oil is heating, put the cornstarch in a bowl and stir in the chilled soda water. Dip the shrimp into the cornstarch mixture (you will need to stir it frequently) then place in the hot oil and fry until they are just cooked (less than a minute). Fry the shrimp in batches and, when they are cooked, drain them on paper towels.
4 After frying all the shrimp, pour the oil from the wok into a bowl. Rinse the wok to remove any residual cornstarch, then place it over a high flame. When the wok is hot, add about 15ml of the oil used to fry the shrimp. Add the garlic, both types of chillies and the spring onions and stir-fry for about 30 seconds. (Try to avoid breathing in the fumes, because they will make you cough and sneeze.) Transfer the ingredients to a plate.
5 Heat the wok again over a high flame and add about 25ml of the oil used to fry the shrimp. Put all the shrimp/prawns into the wok and sprinkle in the salt and pepper. Stir-fry to coat the shrimp with the seasonings, then stir in the garlic, chillies and spring onions. Transfer the ingredients to a serving platter. Serves four as part of a Chinese meal.
Poached shrimp with soy and chilli dipping sauce
If you have ever been to a seafood restaurant on one of Hong Kong’s outlying islands, the chances are you will have tasted this dish. It’s the easiest way to prepare fresh shrimp to showcase their sweet flavour. Some restaurants steam the shrimp, but I prefer to give them a quick dip in a large pot of boiling water. It takes about a minute – more or less, depending on the size of the shrimp.
600 grams fresh shrimp, with bodies about 7cm long
1-2 red bird’s-eye chillies
2-3 spring onions
80ml light soy sauce
½ tsp granulated sugar
About 5ml sesame oil
1 Rinse the shrimp under cool, running water, then drain. Use kitchen scissors to trim the shrimp of their long antennae and legs. Leave the heads and shells on, but remove the veins as in the first recipe. Bring a large pot of water to the boil.
2 While the water is heating, prepare the dipping sauce. Cut the bird’s-eye chillies into thin rounds, squeezing out and discarding as many of the seeds as possible. Slice the spring onions about 2mm thick. Mix the soy sauce with the sugar, then divide between four small dipping bowls. Add a drizzle of sesame oil to each bowl, then top with the chillies and spring onions.
3 When the water boils, add the shrimp and cook until the shells turn pink and the bodies curl slightly (about a minute). Strain the shrimp through a colander (if you like, save the poaching liquid, and use as the starting point for a seafood stock). Transfer the shrimp to a platter, then serve immediately with the dipping sauce.