Each year in May, soft-shell crab season hits and these delightful little crustaceans show up at seafood purveyors all over the city, lined up neatly in little boxes. Inevitably, my father-in-law shows up in Brooklyn with a hankering for them. Emails fly back and forth between us for weeks beforehand - we discuss ways to cook them, we discuss ingredients. He makes trips to the many Chinese, Vietnamese and Indian groceries that have popped up all over his town and the neighboring townships in Massachusetts. I list ingredients he's never heard of or had the need for before. I've never personally seen him at one of these stores but I believe he is like a kid in a candy store simply because it's such an adventure to him. Tamarind! Galangal! Fresh turmeric, please!! Curry leaves! He sets out for these as if he were on his own personal quest for the Holy Grail, then dutifully reports back to me by email - Galangal: yes Curry leaves: no.
Last year, we made Soft-Shell Chili Crab - you know that dish that is claimed equally by Singaporeans and Malaysians as their very own invention?! I'm not in the mood for an argument, so we'll call it Singapore Chili Crabs for the sake of world peace. Usually made with giant mud crabs, we decided we would adapt it to suit the season and chili up those soft-shells. I'll have to rescue that blog post from my previous blog so I can share it with you here. They were spectaculicious! I wish I had enough for the whole block! This year we decided on a salted egg yolk sauce - butter, the yolks of salted duck eggs, spicy bird eye chilies, curry leaves and milk. A brilliant creation of some unsung Malaysian-Chinese chef and available at most fine seafood establishments back home.
Last Saturday, Dad-in-law arrived with bags of groceries for me (he never arrives at our door without a giant bottle of Sriracha!) On Saturday night, we went out to dinner as we always do at Michael's Restaurant in Brooklyn. We spotted soft-shell crabs on the menu and nodded with satisfaction that they were indeed available. On Sunday, after brunch we went to my favorite seafood place. No soft-shells. We were incredulous!! What? We tried a second place. No soft-shells. On our way to our third stop, we did something we've never had reason to do together before - we had our fingers crossed. Two people from completely different backgrounds, religions, ages, genders, and from absolute opposite corners of the globe were united with one mission. Sadly however, no amount of togetherness and kumbayah-ing was going to help us. NO SOFT-SHELLS! Our hearts fell ever-so-slightly in unison. We then discussed our next steps.
We could have had crab, but that was much too close to our original thwarted plan. Instead, we opted for jumbo shrimp. They would be deep fried just as the soft-shells would have been, then coated with a spicy butter and salted duck egg yolk sauce. Not soft-shell crabs, but it would do!
Father-in-law: How many lbs?
FIL: One? I want leftovers for lunch tomorrow!
Me: Okay then... two?
FIL: You're not eating leftovers for lunch tomorrow?
Me: Okay, three!
Here's the recipe. Of course, if you find soft-shell crabs at your local seafood place, you should make this recipe with them. Just don't break my heart and tell me about it. Oh okay, DO tell me about it. Take pictures. Blog about it.
Salted Egg Shrimp (serves 4 - 6)
3lbs jumbo shrimp
1 cup cornflour
1/2 teaspoon powdered turmeric
1 teaspoon chili powder
Peanut oil for deep frying
4 tablespoons butter
4 large cloves of garlic - chopped
5 - 8 green bird eye chilies - chopped
Small handful of curry leaves
4 salted duck egg yolks - beaten
1/2 a cup of evaporated milk
Salt and pepper to taste
In a Ziploc bag, combine cornflour, powdered turmeric, and chili powder. Add salt and pepper to taste. Wash and dry shrimp and add to the flour mixture. Zip it closed and give everything a good shake to coat the shrimp evenly with the flour mixture. You may have to do it in batches unless you have a huge Ziploc bag. I did it in a large bowl, but the bag method is less messy.
In a large work, heat enough oil to deep fry the shrimp. Depending on the size of your wok, add 8 - 10 shrimp at a time and fry until golden brown and slightly curled up. The curl tells you when the shrimp is cooked. Don't let your shrimp come to a tight curl as you don't want to overcook them - nothing worse than rubbery shrimp, right? Once cooked, remove from the pan onto paper towels to drain some of the oil. Repeat with the rest of the shrimp, adding oil and letting it come up to frying temperature as needed. Once all the shrimp is fried, dump out all the oil from your wok and clean the wok with a couple of paper towels. Please be careful with hot oil - don't get any water near it or you run the risk of it spattering everywhere.
Over medium heat, add the butter, garlic, bird eye chillies and curry leaves. This is heaven in a wok! Seriously. Let this cook until fragrant, about 3 minutes. Add the beaten salted egg yolk, stirring constantly for about two minutes until the yolk is cooked which happens very quickly. Add the evaporated milk, and salt and pepper to taste. I like a lot of freshly ground pepper - it adds another layer of "heat" to the bird eye chillies and chili powder. Give this a good stir to combine, then add the fried shrimp back into the wok. A couple of good turns to coat the shrimp with the gorgeous, creamy, salty, spicy sauce and it's time to eat. Don't make the mistake of letting the shrimp cook in the sauce for too long ie: 3 minutes is too long. You risk losing that deep-fried crunch.
Serve immediately with white rice and simple blanched or stir-fried greens. If I knew who created the incredible combination of ingredients that make this dish I would kiss them!
A note on shrimp: This dish requires whole shrimp - this means heads, tails, shells, everything. I do take the time to chop off the eyes and beards with a very sharp cleaver, however in Malaysia shrimp are always served whole and either eaten that way or peeled by each individual. Because the shrimp in this recipe are deep-fried, I eat them whole - nothing like a yummy shrimp head that's soaked up all that delicious sauce. The only part I do not eat is the tail shell as it remains too tough. Here's a picture I took on our travels back home last December. This dish was part of our dinner at a Chinese banquet-style restaurant called East Ocean Restaurant in Ipoh, a VERY famous food and foodie town. People in Ipoh really know how to eat well! As for this picture - see what I mean? The shrimp in the foreground on the right is looking directly at you! If this turns you off or gives you the heebie-jeebies, I'm sorry to say that this dish is not for you. Shrimp cocktail, anyone?