Adapted from Viet World Kitchen’s Spicy Salt and Pepper Shrimp
These delicious shrimp satiate by proxy one of my biggest cravings. You see, I am obsessed with soft-shelled crab, but it’s so expensive that I rarely get to have my fill of it; so when I came across the notion of frying shrimp so that the shells are light and crispy enough to eat, it was an epiphany. In fact, it’s shocking to me, now that I think about it, how popular soft-shelled crab is in America, or at least on the East Coast, but that same food culture shuns shrimp shells as inedible. Many Asian cooks realize their worth, frying the shrimp in their shells with their heads still attached; they twist the heads off to slurp out the savory juices inside and eat the crispy bodies like potato chips.
Although the shrimp in this recipe are fried, there’s no heavy batter coating and they’re not greasy. The shells lend these little crustaceans an awesome crunch, and keep the meat inside both tender and richly flavored. To top it off, they’re sprinkled with flavorful aromatics like ginger, chili peppers, and garlic. Heaven. I could eat these all day long, and they cost a fraction of what it would be to serve soft-shelled crab. I like to serve them on a bed of mint and arugula salad dressed in a light olive oil and lemon vinaigrette, to bring freshness and acidity to the dish.
Note: I’ve had trouble finding shrimp with the head on, but buy them that way if you can. Even if having the head attached is too much for you to deal with on the plate, cooking the shrimp with the head attached will help keep even more of the tasty juices inside, and then you can twist the heads off and discard them while eating (but keep them to make stock with).
2 lbs medium shrimp in their shells, cleaned and properly trimmed (if they’re “EZ peel,” you don’t have to do anything with them—the shells will be edible—and if you want to do head-on, then just snip off the feet, sharp tip of the head, and the razor-shaped rostrum on top of their heads)
¾ cup cornstarch
1 tsp white pepper
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp fine sea salt
1 TBSP garlic powder
1 TBSP red pepper flakes, plus more to garnish
1 TBSP ground ginger
2” knob of fresh ginger, minced
12 cloves of garlic, sliced
4 scallions, chopped
Neutral oil for deep-frying and sautéing
Rinse shrimp with cold water and pat as dry as possible. Combine the white pepper, sugar, sea salt, garlic powder, red pepper flakes, ground ginger, and cornstarch in a large bowl and then add the shrimp, tossing to coat.
In a medium skillet, heat a drizzle of neutral oil over medium-high heat and add the ginger and garlic; sauté for a few minutes until the ginger is softened and the garlic is golden, then turn off the heat, add the scallions, and give them a stir. Set aside to garnish the shrimp with later.
Heat about 1” of oil in a large cast iron skillet over medium-high (an 8 on the dial for our stove). You’ll know the oil is hot enough when, upon inserting the tip of a plain wooden chopstick, bubbles stream off the tip. Set up a wire cooling rack nearby to place the shrimp as they come out of the pan.
Once the oil’s preheated, drizzle a couple tablespoons of it on the shrimp very carefully and toss to turn the cornstarch mixture into a batter. Working in batches (don’t overcrowd the pan), fry the shrimp until golden, about 1 minute per side for a total of 2 minutes per batch, then remove the shrimp to the rack and start the next batch. If you’re using larger shrimp or they are head-on, you may need to give them a little more time.
Once all the shrimp are finished, serve immediately, garnished with the fresh ginger, garlic, and scallions and topped with extra red pepper flakes. Add a little extra sea salt if desired.