This Chinese appetiser is one of my favourites, and it’s surprisingly easy to make at home. Szechuan peppercorns are toasted in a dry pan until they release their amazing fragrance, then combined with flours and some other seasonings to make a feathery crisp and light coating for the prawns. Garlic and aromatic spring onions (scallions for American readers) are dusted in the flour coating and fried, making a crisp and delicious garnish for the prawns.
Those American readers are probably also wondering what these prawn things I’m on about are. Sometimes these linguistic differences become downright annoying. The United Nations (not somewhere I usually visit for culinary advice, but surprisingly helpful in this instance) informs me that:
…in Great Britain the term “shrimp” is the more general of the two, and is the only term used for Crangonidae and most smaller species. “Prawn” is the more special of the two names, being used solely for Palaemondiae and larger forms, never for the very small ones.
In North America the name “prawn” is practically obsolete and is almost entirely replaced by the word “shrimp” (used for even the largest species, which may be called “jumbo shrimp”). If the word “prawn” is used at all in America it is attached to small species.
So there you have it. Every time I say ‘prawn’, please substitute ‘large shrimp about the size of your thumb, once the head has been removed’, and get frying. For salt and pepper shrimp for two, you’ll need:
500g raw, shelled prawns
2 tablespoons Szechuan peppercorns
1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons rice flour (rice flour will give your coating an amazing crispness)
3 tablespoons cornflour
2 tablespoons fleur de sel, Maldon salt or any salt with a flaky, crystalline form
4 spring onions (scallions)
6 cloves garlic
Flavourless oil to shallow fry
Begin by toasting the Szechuan peppercorns over a medium flame in a dry frying pan until they start to release their fragrance (about 4 minutes). Combine the toasted whole peppercorns in a large bowl with the black pepper, rice flour, cornflour and salt. This sounds like a great deal of salt, but this dish requires a lot, and you may actually find that you want to sprinkle a little more over at the end, so be generous.
Chop the garlic very roughly, and slice the spring onions into little discs.
De-vein (actually de-intestine) the prawns if you want – if I am confident with the source of my shellfish, I don’t usually bother. Dredge them in the seasoned flour. Heat up a 2cm depth of oil in a thick-bottomed pan, and fry the prawns in small batches when the heat is searingly hot, turning until the coating is golden and crisp. Transfer to a kitchen paper-covered plate in a warm oven to drain and keep warm as the other prawns are cooking.
When all the prawns are ready, dredge the garlic and spring onions in the seasoned flour, using a slotted spoon to remove them from the flour bowl. Saute them in the oil you cooked the prawns in until their coating is also turning golden. Remove from the oil with the rinsed and dried slotted spoon and place on kitchen paper to remove any excess oil.
Arrange the prawns on plates, sprinkle over the onion and garlic mixture, and serve immediately.