Phoenix Tail Shrimp

鳳尾蝦

This is the fried shrimp of China—a whole, shelled shrimp with its red tail left on for a handle, dipped in batter, than deep-fried to a crispy golden brown. The body of the shrimp, slit partway and flattened, spreads upon frying to an appealing-looking fan. This is the phoenix tail, one more example of how the Chinese love to lyricize food and elevate it above the merely chewable.

  • This is a lively, if somewhat unorthodox, rendition of a classic. The sesame seeds impart a nice brittle bit of texture to the coating, and the finely minced scallion and ginger give the batter a special note of flavor and color. Jazzed up in this fashion, they make excellent wine-chasers or hors d’oeuvres.
  • The shrimp may be marinated and the batter mixed a full day in advance. The deep-frying must be done at the last minute, but it is so fast and neat that you can do it in party dress.

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Ingredients

  • ½ pound “jumbo” fresh shrimp in their shells, tails on (I use shrimp that are 3–3½ inches long, that is, 10–12 shrimp per half-pound; for information on “fresh” shrimp)

To marinate the shrimp

  • 2 quarter-size slices fresh ginger
  • 1 medium whole scallion, cut into 2-inch lengths
  • 2 tablespoons Chinese rice wine or quality, dry sherry

For the batter

  • ½ cup all-purpose flour
  • ½ teaspoon coarse kosher salt
  • cup plus 1½ tablespoons water, at room temperature
  • 1 teaspoon double-acting baking powder
  • teaspoons finely minced fresh ginger
  • teaspoons finely minced green and white scallion
  • tablespoons freshly toasted white sesame seeds

For dipping or sprinkling

  • 4–6 cups corn or peanut oil, for deep-frying

Method

Marinating the shrimp and making the batter

Rinse the shrimp briefly with cool water, then pat dry. Remove the shell carefully with your fingers, beginning at the tail end and leaving the tail and the sharp “stinger” just above it intact. Remove the vein with a neat, shallow cut, or by pushing the flesh at the head end back a bit to expose the end of the vein and then pulling on it gently to extract the vein without cutting (some shrimp can be deveined in this manner with real ease). Using a sharp knife, carefully slit the shrimp all along its inner curve, cutting ¾ of the way through the flesh. (This is the opposite of the better-known “butterfly” cut, where the shrimp is cut along the back side.) Turn the shrimp cut side down, then tap once or twice gently with the broad side of a light Chinese cleaver or chef’s knife to spread and flatten the flesh. You don’t want to make it terribly thin; just a light one or two taps will do.

Smash the ginger and scallion with the blunt handle end or broad side of a cleaver or chef’s knife to spread the fibers and bring the juices to the surface. Mix with the wine in a small bowl, add the shrimp, and toss well with your hands to distribute the marinade. Seal airtight and refrigerate for 2–24 hours to infuse the shrimp. Stir once if convenient, midway through marinating.

Add the flour, salt, water, and baking powder to the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel knife, then process for about 1 minute until thoroughly blended, scraping the bowl down once or twice. Add the finely minced ginger and scallion, then process to combine. If you do not have a food processor, use a blender or a whisk, first blending the flour, salt, water, and baking powder to form a smooth, thick batter, and then stirring in the ginger and scallion. Do not add the sesame seeds at this time, lest they lose their crispness. Scrape the batter into a small bowl, seal airtight, then set aside for 2 hours at room temperature or overnight in the refrigerator to allow the gluten to relax.

Deep-frying the shrimp

About 30 minutes before serving, drain the shrimp of the wine marinade and discard the pieces of ginger and scallion. Put a baking tray lined with a double thickness of paper towels, a pair of chopsticks or wooden tongs, and/or a Chinese mesh spoon or slotted spoon all within easy reach of your stovetop. Put a serving platter of a color to contrast with the shrimp in a low oven to warm and ready a small dip dish of the pepper-salt. Finally, stir the toasted sesame seeds into the batter. Put the batter and the well-drained shrimp alongside your stovetop.

Heat a wok or deep, heavy skillet over high heat until hot. Add the oil, then heat to the light-haze stage, 350° on a deep-fry thermometer. Adjust the heat so the oil temperature remains stable. Test the oil with a drop of batter. It should rise to the surface within 2–3 seconds, wearing a crown of tiny white bubbles.

Pick up the first shrimp firmly by the tail, then dip it into the batter to coat it all but the tail. Holding it still by the tail, lower the shrimp halfway into the oil. After 5–10 seconds, wiggle it a bit and the “head” will float upwards. When the head is floating high on the surface of the oil with a crown of white bubbles, in another 5 seconds or so, let go of the tail. This is all very safe and easy; your fingers do not touch the oil and there is no big bubbling or spattering to frighten the cook.

When the first shrimp is fully in the oil, repeat the process with a second shrimp, and so on until the first shrimp turns golden. It will take about 2 minutes for the first shrimp to turn a light gold, and you should turn it once or twice while frying to insure even coloring, and then remove it promptly to the paper-towel drain where it will continue to darken a shade from its own heat. Working steadily in this manner, the whole batch can be fried within 10 minutes, and the first shrimp out of the oil will still be hot when the last one is done.

Transfer the shrimp promptly to the serving platter and serve at once. You may sprinkle a bit of the pepper-salt on top, or invite your guests to sprinkle or lightly dip the shrimp in the mixture. Use the pepper-salt sparingly. No utensils are necessary; you can pick up the shrimp by their tails.

Do not arrange to have leftovers. The shrimp are best freshly fried.

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