These thumb-size logs of deep-fried shrimp paste wrapped around the middle with a band of crispy seaweed remind me of Japan, not because this pretty, very Japanese-looking dish probably originated there, but because it recalls the street workers I watched daily during my summers in Kyoto. They were plumpish men turned red by the sun, who in spite of the intense Kyoto heat wore dark woolen bands around their bellies to protect the spirits which reside in one’s middle.
Make the shrimp paste and refrigerate, if desired, overnight. (I prefer using it freshly made, when the ginger flavor is keenest, but the loss is small and the convenience may be great.)
Up to 3 hours in advance, shape the shrimp rolls. Lightly grease a flat dinner plate and a tablespoon with some corn or peanut oil. Lay the first strip of laver on your work space. Scoop up 1 tablespoon of the shrimp paste and put it in the middle of the laver band. With your fingers, shape the paste into a stubby log, perpendicular to the length of the band. Wrap the band around the shrimp log so it overlaps itself by ¼ inch, then glue the laver to itself with a thin smear of shrimp paste, thereby sealing the band. Smooth the protruding shrimp paste with your fingers to round the log at the ends, then put the roll on the oiled plate. Do not space the finished rolls too closely together lest they stick.
Once shaped, the rolls may be refrigerated for several hours. Seal the plate airtight with plastic, taking care not to squash the rolls, and bring to room temperature before frying.
Have the shrimp rolls, two baking trays each lined with a double thickness of paper towels, a pair of cooking chopsticks or wooden tongs, and a large Chinese mesh spoon or a large metal strainer with a handle all within reach of your stovetop. Put a serving platter in a low oven to warm. Ready the accompaniment(s) in small dip dishes to serve with the shrimp.
About 15 minutes before serving, 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 temperature does not rise, then test the oil with a bit of shrimp paste or one shrimp roll. If the oil is sufficiently hot, it should rise to the surface within 2–4 seconds, wearing a crown of tiny white bubbles.
Carefully drop the shrimp rolls one by one into the oil about an inch above the surface. Fry in batches of 5–8 or more, continuing to add them so long as the rolls have room to float and each one rises quickly to the surface surrounded by white bubbles. If the bubbling ceases, the oil temperature is too low.
Fry the rolls until only lightly golden, about 1 minute, turning them in the oil to encourage even coloring. Remove them half-done to the first towel-lined tray, then raise the heat to bring the oil temperature to 375°. If you are forced to work in small batches or are cooking a double recipe, keep the tray in a 325° oven, so the rolls stay hot and don’t shrivel.
When the oil is at 375°, add all the rolls at one time, keeping the heat high so the addition of so much bulk will not lower the temperature. Fry, turning them, until golden and swollen, 15–30 seconds. Remove them swiftly from the oil in one swoop with the mesh spoon or strainer, and transfer to the fresh towel-lined tray.
Shake the tray to blot up excess oil, then arrange the rolls prettily on the heated platter. Work quickly, lest they deflate.
Serve at once, accompanied by the pepper-salt, and/or mustard sauce. Remind your guests to bite down carefully, as the rolls (like one’s belly spirits) stay hot with a band wrapped around them. Also, use dips sparingly. One for each end of the roll is my fashion.
Leftovers are only tolerable cold, and worse reheated, so don’t make extra.
© 1982 Barbara Tropp estate. All rights reserved.