This is a simple and strikingly seasoned dish of whole shrimp in their shells, filled with the tang of ginger and scallion and richly infused with black soy and wine. It was taught to me by my more-Chinese-than-Chinese friend, Harvey, at a time when I was a rank beginner to cooking and was stir-frying on a hot plate secreted in my dormitory room, using a tin stockpot inherited from my grandmother.
Spray the shrimp briefly with cool water, then drain. Remove the legs, pulling off several at a time between your thumb and first finger. Bend back and then break off the sharp pincer above the tail. Work carefully, so the body of the shell remains intact. Use small scissors with long, thin blades (embroidery scissors are ideal) to cut through the shell along the back of each shrimp, cutting all the way to the tail. Cradle the shrimp in your fingers while cutting, so as not to dislodge the shell. With the point of the scissors carefully extract the black intestinal vein. If the vein is clear, you needn’t bother to remove it.
At this point, the shrimp may be bagged airtight and refrigerated up to 8 hours. Mist the shrimp lightly if the shells have become dry. Uncooked shrimp will deteriorate rapidly at low temperatures, so store them in the coolest portion of your refrigerator (not the freezer) and on a rack over a pan of ice if the refrigerator is not very cold.
Combine the ginger and scallion. Combine the wine and soy. Have the shrimp and the remaining ingredients all within easy reach of your stovetop.
Heat a wok or deep, heavy skillet over high heat until hot enough to evaporate a bead of water on contact. Add the oil and swirl to glaze the pan. When the oil is hot enough to sizzle one bit of ginger, add the shrimp. Stir-fry briskly but gently for about 1 minute, glazing the shrimp evenly with the oil and keeping the shells intact. Regulate the heat so the shrimp sizzle merrily without scorching. Sprinkle evenly with salt and sugar, stir-fry for 30 seconds to coat, then reduce the heat to medium-high. Add the ginger and scallion, and stir-fry gently for about 1½ minutes, until their aromas “explode” in full fragrance. Add the wine and soy and continue to stir gently, until the liquids are reduced by one half, raising the heat if needed to maintain a brisk simmer.
Scrape the mixture into a shallow bowl and let cool at least 30 minutes at room temperature, stirring occasionally, to give the seasonings time to penetrate. For a richer, fuller flavor, let the shrimp marinate 1–2 hours at room temperature, loosely covered, or overnight in the refrigerator, sealed airtight. Stir occasionally while marinating to redistribute the juices. Serve the shrimp tepid, at room temperature, or slightly chilled.
To serve, arrange the shrimp in a flower-like spiral pattern on a large plate of contrasting color. Begin at the edge of the plate and work in toward the center, arranging the shrimp so they all curve in one direction, pointing the tails outward to serve as ready “handles” for your guests. Reserve the smallest shrimp for the center, placing them together in a tiny pinwheel. Scrape the juices evenly on top, and garnish with the scallion.
If you are as agile-tongued as most Chinese, you will be able to put the shrimp in your mouth—whole or in pieces, depending on the size of the shrimp, the size of your mouth, and the style of the occasion—wiggle your jaws a bit, then neatly spit out a perfectly intact shrimp shell. If you are a typical novice, you will do a rather bad, mangled job of it, but will have a great time trying. (The only Westerner I have seen do this with real finesse is my friend Harvey, who has been practicing by cracking melon seeds between his front teeth and extracting the seed with his tongue—a favorite Chinese pastime—since he was a child.)
Otherwise, you may suck on the shell to extract the juices—very important!—and then peel it off with your fingers. As host or hostess, encourage a lot of good-eating noise, and pass a plate of hot, steamed towels to the shrimp-eaters.
Leftovers keep 2–3 days, refrigerated and tightly sealed. Do not reheat.
© 1982 Barbara Tropp estate. All rights reserved.