JeJu

Crystal Ball Shrimp

In food on 12/19/2009 at 10:16 pm

Somehow we have been corralled into cooking Christmas dinner for the in-laws. The only request was no fish head in the soup. Why do people have the impression that we would want to ruin fish head by dunking it in water? We’re not Malay.

Flexing our culinary prowess on vacation is not ideal, but at least this way, I can eat something I actually find tasty. After some discussion, we decided a banquet style menu was in order: surf n’ turf, fish and fowl, nothing too offal. We want to show the family that real Chinese food is unlike anything they’ve ever encountered at their local take-out.

Enter The Chinese Banquet Cookbook, which I stumbled upon in the library in my favorite section. Within lies the golden egg, the one dish I have fantasized about since I ate it at my Vietnamese friend’s wedding banquet: Soi Jing Har Kau Tim Hop Toh, aka Crystal Shrimp with Honey Walnuts. It’s a Cantonese cum Shanghai classic adopted as a must-have at all Chinese celebrations, and Vietnamese ones too, apparently.

Shanghai is the most cosmopolitan of China’s cities. It is said that the most beautiful girls come from there. And the best cooks. Shanghai is as glossy as the food it’s known for. That’s why the appearance of the best dishes is of utmost importance, and the chefs feel free to poach the best dishes of other provinces and make them their own.

That was almost a decade ago when I sampled this divine delight. Then again, since I rarely frequent Cantonese restaurants, it’s usually not on the menu at my usual dives. The dish is a revelation in color (lightly glazed plump n’ pink crunchy shrimp contrasting dark brown crispy walnuts) and taste (salty with a hint of sweet). It is at once decadent and simple.

I must confess there are two other times I’ve eaten a version of this, but they don’t really count: at a Buddhist vegetarian place in Flushing, and tonight at the Grand Shanghai on the drive home from Princeton as a respite from the crawling traffic during the blizzard of 2009. The former was surprisingly good (the texture of the gluten was quite convincing) and the latter was veering on inedible. But both iterations had battered the shrimp and covered them in a gooey sweet sauce or Kewpie mayonnaise, which was a weird Americanization of the classic, rendering it an overwrought disaster. The latter also set the mound of prawns (here an overly lux substitution for the shrimp, but were too big and meaty for this elegant dish) on a bed of unseasoned steamed broccoli – tragic.

I’m posting the adapted recipe before I make it so I can use it as a reference when I’m freezing my butt on Friday night. As of today, there is already 2.5 feet of fallen snow recorded in Madison, my current and future North Pole Christmas locale. For the rest of the menu, it’ll be more homestyle soulful heartiness. I’ll see what’s available on Christmas Eve at the only real Asian mart in the downtown area.

Crystal Shrimp Ingredients:
20 medium shrimp: shell, devein, wash, dry (slit along the vein to get the butterflied look when sautéd)
1 egg white, beaten
1/2 tsp salt
pinch of white pepper
1 tsp white wine
1 1/2 tsp cornstarch

Sauce:
4 Tbsp sugar
4 Tbsp white vinegar
5 Tbsp chicken broth
4 Tbsp white wine
1/2 tsp light soy sauce
1/4 tsp salt
pinch of white pepper
1 tsp cornstarch
1 scallion chopped
10 slices ginger

1. Marinate shrimp in egg white, salt, pepper, wine and cornstarch for 1 hr.
2. Mix sauce, set aside.
3. Fry ginger and scallion in oil until fragrant. Add shrimp and saute until they ‘butterfly’ and turn pink.
4. Stir in sauce and mix until well incorporated.

Honey Walnuts Ingredients:

4 cup water
12 oz walnuts (or your nut of choice; I like Brazil nut or filbert)
1 1/2 oz sugar
6 Tbsp water (for glaze)

1. Put walnuts in boiling water for 5 minutes to remove bitter taste. Remove and drain. Repeat with new water. (This is not necessary if you use another type of nut.)
2. Add 6 Tbsp to pot. Add sugar when boiling. Let boil 1 minute.
3. Add nuts and stir till coated. Take nuts out.
4. Fry nuts in oil for 5 minutes until golden brown.

Combine shrimp with nuts and serve with white rice.

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  1. As one of the guests at this sumptuous feast, I can report that it was truly a remarkable banquet – one I was honored to be a part of. It was notable for the exquisite blend of tastes, perfect timing — each dish was at it’s very best when plated and of course presented perfectly.

    The chefs were calm and gracious– accommodating the request for “street food” (noodles) and both spicy and mild sauces.

    This thoughtfully crafted banquet was prepared in only four hours. It would have taken us 24 hours and there would have been a lot of swearing on my part.

    The Madison Banquet of ’09 will go down in family history as the best Christmas dinner ever!

    Double Yum and lots of fun!

    With gratitude,

    A.H (and A.C.)

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