Caramelized Soy and Garlic Shrimp

By Tsz on February 23, 2010

I intensely dislike getting my hands dirty.

Food that are meant to be eaten with hands, such as fried chicken, burgers, pizzas, etc., I eat with a knife and fork. In fact, while I suffered through 2 years of braces (a modern day torture device), I secretly relished the excuse it gave me to eat sans bare hands. I would say, “oh, I would eat this sandwich with my hands if I could… but you know, I gotta be careful with these braces. Yeah, dentist orders… so lame.” Even now, although I’ve been braces-free for years, I still tell my dining companions I’ve been “conditioned” by braces to justify my eccentric eating habits.

My strong preference against eating with hands started early. It was Play-doh that did me in. After a particularly robust arts and crafts session, I looked down at my fingers and saw the bits of doh stuck underneath my nails… And then there was that lingering noxious smell… Cringing just thinking about it.

It affected me so much I remember skipping out on a fun class project in 4th grade. It was near Thanksgiving and my teacher surprised us with a recipe for Indian fried bread (not sure how authentic it is). I had no problem measuring out the precise amounts of flour, water and salt, but once we got to the mixing portion part of the program, I promptly batted my lashes at a nearby boy and asked him sweetly to help me out.

Since then, I’m able to mix my own dough on my own, thank you very much. But, I jump at the chance whenever I could use a wooden spoon or another heaven-sent mixing instrument. During meals, I use my fork and knife whenever possible and I’m also particularly apt in using chopsticks to cut food down to size.

Yet, there is one dish I’m willing to get my hands dirty for. Literally. Loosely translated to “Soy Sauce Shrimp Emperor,” it’s a homely Cantonese dish that is essentially plump shrimp, saute in their shells and glazed with a soy-garlic sauce (not unlike Kyo-chon’s). My parents would make it whenever they saw a particularly fresh catch at the street market… which was quite often since we lived in Hong Kong.

Since my parents were immune to my charm, they would set the plate piled high with glazed shrimp and start making their way through it—forcing me to fend for myself. Fearing the sauce would stain my fingers, I avoided the dish and opting to eat my rice plain instead. But the dish’s fragrant garlic scent lured me in and I gingerly reached for one and I haven’t looked back since. Yes, it’s messy, but oh so finger-lickingly good. Salty, garlicky and with a just a hint of caramel, it is a fitting match for the free-swimming crustacean.

Provided, the dish didn’t cure me of my “condition,” but I’d always make an exception to use my hands for the glazed shrimp. The best part is that it’s incredibly easy to make. All you need is a few minutes, fresh shrimp, some light soy, black pepper, sugar and garlic. And if you like it tangy, a lemon. That’s it.

Just remember to wash your hands afterwards.

Caramelized Soy and Garlic Shrimp

1 pound shrimp (heads and shells intact)
2 tablespoon canola oil
3 cloves garlic
1/4 cup light soy
1 teaspoon sugar
Black Pepper
1 lemon
1 stalk of green onion

1. Go out and buy a pound of the freshest shrimp you can find with their heads and shell intact. I get mine from the neighborhood Hong Kong Supermarket. Soak them in cool salted water for 30 mins or so to let them clean themselves out since we won’t be deveining them. Drain and dry them thoroughly.

2. Heat a wok or a skillet over high heat till it’s smoking hot. Then, add 2 tablespoons of neutral oil with a high smoking point (this is not the time for EVOO)—canola or vegetable oil work great.

3. When you see the oil ripple, you’re ready to add the shrimp. *Note, make sure the shrimp are dry, unless you enjoy 3rd degree burns. Spread them in a even layer and let them brown on one side, around 2 mins.

4. In the meanwhile, grate 3 big cloves of garlic over the shrimp. I prefer grating over to chopping them since it saves time, plus it really crushes the garlic’s membranes which in turn releases more flavor. Lift one shrimp and check for color, when it’s golden brown, flip them all over.

5. Once they’re all flipped, add a 1/4 cup of light soy. My go-to is Lee Kum Kee’s “Seasoned Soy Sauce for Seafood” as it’s is more delicate and nuanced than regular soy. Lately, I’ve also been experimenting with Kikkoman’s “Ponzu Lime” after receiving a bottle through Foodbuzz Tastemaker Program. It’s got a zesty flavor that goes particularly well with seafood.

6. Next, add a teaspoon of sugar and start stirring. With the high heat and the addition of sugar, the soy will take on a nutty, caramelized taste that is unparalleled and thicken to a glaze that will coat the shrimp.

7. When the shrimp are cooked and glazed, turn off the heat and add a fresh grinding of black pepper to taste (I like it with a kick). Next, zest half of the lemon over and combine well.

8. Serve with a wedge of lemon, a sprinkling of sliced green onions and enjoy!