I’ll try not to oversell this dish. IloveitIloveitIloveit. I just had this for dinner last night, ate the leftovers for lunch, and as I type this, my tastebuds are jumping up and down.
This Chinese shrimp dish has everything I always look for in an entree: it’s crispy, salty, juicy and spicy. And — I’m very proud to say — I prefer this recipe over most Chinese restaurants’ dishes. Here, I cut off the heads (I save them to make stock; I’m not wasteful!) and I devein the shrimp, although I leave the shells on. The result is a beautifully plump, succulent and easy-to-eat plate of shrimp. The addition of Szechuan peppercorns sends it over-the-top mouthwateringly-spicy.
Prep time: 30-40 minutes
Cook time: 10 minutes
2 pounds shrimp, headless, deveined, shells on
3 teaspoons baking soda
2 cups water
1 cup cornstarch
About 1 quart vegetable or grapeseed oil (for frying)
8-10 fresh Thai chilies, sliced
8 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 tablespoons ginger, finely chopped
For the dipping salt:
2 tablespoons kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon Chinese Five Spice
5 Szechuan peppercorns, for medium spiciness (optional)
1. Prep shrimp: Cut off the heads (of they still have them) and reserve for later use, if you want to make shrimp stock. Devein them gently, making sure you don’t peel the shells off. When done, toss with baking soda in a bowl. Set aside 20 minutes.
2. Heat frying oil: Add the quart-or-so of oil to a 2-quart pot. You can use a larger pot and even more or less oil, if desired. Just make sure you have at least 3 inches of oil in the pot. Put over medium-high heat.
3. Prep fresh spices: Finely chop the garlic and ginger, and slice the chilies. Set aside in a small bowl.
4.: Prep dry spices: Heat a small saute pan for 1 minute. Add the Szechuan peppercorns (if using), kosher salt and Chinese Five Spice. Gently shake the pan back and forth, allowing the spices to move around the pan without spilling out, until they are fragrant and the peppercorns are darker in color, about 2-3 minutes. Remove and add to spice grinder. Grind until smooth.
5. Rinse and pat dry the shrimp. Mix a cornstarch slurry — 2 cups water and 1 cup cornstarch — for dredging.
6. Test the oil’s heat: You’ll know your oil is ready when you add something – say, a slice of chili – to it and it bubbles steadily.
7. In batches, dip shrimp in the slurry, shake off excess, and fry until just pink, about 1 minute. (Ideally, you’d use a spider, in order to carefully and quickly transfer shrimp.) Drain on paper-towel-lined plate. To maximize crunch, make sure you spread them out so the shrimps aren’t in a tall pile.
8. Ladle 2-3 tablespoons frying oil into a large saute pan over medium heat. Add fresh spices: garlic, ginger and chilies and cook until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add shrimp, turning over and mixing to coat in spices. Season with half of the dipping salt. After about 2-3 minutes of cooking, remove and plate.
9. Finish immediately with the remaining dipping salt. Mentally prepare yourself for deliciousness. Serve immediately. Eat your fair share before someone else does.
Why the baking soda treatment? You know how sometimes, when you order this dish at a restaurant, the shells are chewy? The baking soda treatment reduces that. It softens the shells and allows them to crisp up nicely during the frying process.
Why toast the dry spices? This brief cooking process renews the spices, giving them a fuller, richer aroma and flavor.
Can I change the spice level? Yes! But be forewarned: those little Szechuan peppercorns pack a numbing punch! Toasting and grinding just those 5, believe it or not, will give a medium spiciness level. Of course, you can use a couple extra if you like very spicy food, or just nix them altogether if you don’t. The Thai chilies, though spicy, are more moderate. I like them mainly for the added color.
Why either vegetable or grapeseed oil? Vegetable oil is just a standard oil for frying — it’s cheap and neutral in flavor, so it gets the job done well. However, grapeseed oil is a little healthier. Its flavor is somewhat comparable to olive oil, but it has a higher smoke point, which means it doesn’t burn as easily as olive oil does. Thus, it works well for frying.