Classic Chinese shrimp balls are traditionally smooth-textured affairs, made from a paste that one squeezes into balls between one’s fist. Here is something different—the same shrimp purée enlivened with ginger and diced water chestnuts that must be rolled with great gentility between greased palms. They are charmingly irregular when fried and very delicious, traditionally shaped or not.
Make shrimp paste. Refrigerate, if desired, overnight. (I prefer to use it freshly made when the ginger is at its peak sparkle, but the loss is not substantial.)
Up to 3 hours in advance, shape the shrimp balls. Lightly grease a flat dinner plate, your palms, and a teaspoon with corn or peanut oil. Scoop up about 1 tablespoon of the paste with the spoon or scoop, then roll it gently between your palms to produce a walnut-size ball. Transfer it lightly to the plate. Continue to shape balls, oiling the spoon and your palms as needed to prevent sticking.
If you are working in advance, seal the plate airtight with plastic wrap, taking care not to squash the shrimp balls. Bring to room temperature before frying.
Have the shrimp balls, a baking tray lined with a double thickness of paper towels, and a Chinese mesh spoon or slotted spoon all within reach of your stovetop. Put a serving platter in a low oven to warm. Ready the pepper-salt in a small dip dish to be served alongside the shrimp.
About 10–15 minutes prior to serving, heat a wok or deep, heavy skillet over high heat until hot. Add the oil, then heat to the pre-haze stage, 325° on a deep-fry thermometer, when there is a lot of movement just beneath the surface of the oil but a haze has not yet formed. Test the oil with a dab of shrimp paste or one shrimp ball. It should rise to the surface within 2–4 seconds, surrounded by tiny bubbles. Adjust the heat so the temperature does not rise.
One by one, drop the shrimp balls carefully into the oil about an inch above the surface. Fry as many at one time as can freely float on the surface of the oil, adjusting the heat so the oil temperature remains constant and each ball rises quickly to the surface ringed with bubbles.
Fry the shrimp balls until golden and swollen, about 3 minutes, turning them occasionally to encourage even coloring. When they are a half-shade lighter than you wish, remove them with the mesh spoon, hold them briefly above the pot to drain, then transfer them to the paper towels where they will continue to cook and darken a bit from their own heat.
If you are working in small batches or are frying a double recipe, keep the tray in a 325° oven so the shrimp balls remain swollen. As they cool, they deflate.
When all the balls have been fried, shake the tray to blot up excess oil. Arrange them quickly on the heated platter and serve at once, accompanied by the pepper-salt, and toothpicks if you like. Warn your guests to be sparing with the dip; just a touch is sufficient.
Leftover shrimp balls require a special palate to be enjoyed cold. Reheated (as some cookbooks advise), they are abominable.
© 1982 Barbara Tropp estate. All rights reserved.