It is uncertain when shrimp toast entered the Chinese repertoire, but what is clear is that they are almost universally bad—anemic-looking slabs of shrimp plastered atop squares of greasy Wonder Bread. Horrors!
Cut the baguettes on a diagonal to yield 20–25 ovals about 3 inches long and ½–¾ inch thick. Use a serrated knife for a clean, neat cut. Discard any slices with holes in them.
Spread the bread on a rack until dry on top, about 2 hours, then flip and dry the other side. If you are in a rush or your kitchen is humid, spread the slices on a baking sheet and dry in a 200° oven, turning them over once the top is dry. Bag airtight in plastic until ready to use, overnight if you wish.
Shell and devein the shrimp. Rinse with cool water and drain.
Peel fresh water chestnuts and cut into peppercorn-size bits. Blanch canned water chestnuts in plain boiling water to cover for 15 seconds, then drain immediately and chill under cold running water. Cut as above.
Mince the ginger and scallion in the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel knife, scraping down as necessary until fine. Add the shrimp, lard, and salt and mince to a near-paste. Add the wine, water, and cornstarch and process until smooth. Alternatively, mince the ginger and scallion by hand, mince the shrimp to a fine paste with one or two equally weighted cleavers, then combine with the lard, salt, wine, water, and cornstarch, stirring until smooth. (By hand, it will take about 15 minutes.)
Stir in the water chestnuts by hand to preserve their texture. Beat the egg whites until stiff, then fold into the purée, stirring until blended. Press plastic wrap on the surface of the mixture to seal it airtight, and refrigerate until use, overnight if you wish.
Have the shrimp mixture, bread slices and garnishes at hand. Lightly oil a broad, flat knife or metal spatula, so the shrimp will not stick. Slice by slice, mound the shrimp evenly on the bread, using the spatula to press it evenly and firmly all around to form a flat plateau ½ inch high, with smooth, gently sloped sides meeting the edge of the bread. Garnish with a coriander leaf or scallion branch in the middle, a light sprinkle of ham at one end, and a dusting of sesame seeds at the other end. Press lightly with your finger to make the garnishes adhere.
Put the finished slices on a plate or tray. They may be refrigerated, loosely covered, for several hours.
About 20 minutes before serving, put the shrimp toast, a tray lined with a double thickness of paper towels, a Chinese mesh spoon, and cooking chopsticks or wooden tongs within easy reach of your stovetop. Combine the dip sauce ingredients and set aside in a small serving bowl. Put a serving platter of contrasting color in a low oven to warm.
Heat a wok or large, deep skillet over high heat until hot. Add the oil, and heat to the light-haze stage, 350° on a deep-fry thermometer, when a bit of shrimp paste floats to the surface within 3–4 seconds. One by one, gently slip the toast shrimp side down into the oil, frying as many as can float freely at one time and adjusting the heat so they rise quickly to the surface surrounded by bubbles. Fry about 4 minutes until the shrimp is reddish-gold, then turn the toast over to lightly brown the bread. Do not overcook the shrimp, which will continue to cook from its own heat after it leaves the oil. Scoop the toasts from the oil with the spoon and put them bread side down on the towel-lined tray. The finished toasts can be kept warm in a 325° oven while the rest are being fried. Do not hold more than 5 minutes in the oven or they will shrivel.
Arrange the shrimp toast on the platter like the petals of a flower with the dish of dip sauce in the center.
Leftovers are tasty for snacking if you enjoy cold fried foods. Do not reheat.
© 1982 Barbara Tropp estate. All rights reserved.