So I might struggle to find some ingredients here, but prawns are something Singapore definitely has no shortage of and the quality is absolutely amazing! There are many seafood restaurants in town and for someone coming from a country/continent where seafood is rarely available fresh (meaning that it hasn't been frozen or transported on ice somewhere along the supply chain), this country certainly is prawn heaven. No matter where you go, you can be sure to be served the plumpest and juiciest prawns - fingerlickingly good.
Our first experience of eating prawns here was on Boat Quay - now, to even the most seasoned, but still undiscerning tourist, this might look like the tourist trap par excellence... in the middle of the Financial District and close to all the sights, a row of restaurants lined up along the river, right where the cruises depart. If it wasn't for two little boys (and the two adults lugging them around and cheering them on "come on, it's only 35C in the shade!") who happened to be utterly exhausted after what really was just a short walk, it wouldn't even have crossed our minds to enter one of the eateries there on the river. Where we come from, big, fat panels of glossy photos of, well, food (but not the kind of foodporn you find on blogs these days, just poorly photographed dishes of unidentifiable food objects) don't really scream "die, die, must try" or even "decent food at reasonable prices" at you... they holler "get out of here as fast as you can, this is a complete rip-off and you'll probably be hugging the toilet for days".
Not so here. After passing by the 15th restaurant and its seafront garden and fending off many a smooth-talking waiter, I let myself finally be lured into one of them (it was the "fish and chips available" that did it, you might remember that the day before, my son had said that he hated Chinese food and that was that) - and Chris and I had the most wonderful selection of top-quality prawns we had had in a very long time. The sheer variety on offer will bowl you over, but I will have to delve into the weird (cereal prawns, anyone?) and wonderful (drunken prawns, yessir!) ways of enjoying your crustaceans on another occasion.
Now that I call a (fantabulous!) kitchen my own and have a great wet market just around the corner, I obviously want to get my hand dirty and cook again... Vietnamese being one of my favourite cuisines on this continent, I finally embarked on getting my money's worth out of Lemongrass and Lime, a cookbook I bought ages ago - I had simply been struggling to find the ingredients. And what in London would have involved a car journey to the Asian supermarket and my tried and trusted fish monger, both in different parts of town, is now available right on my doorstep... you can see why I am loving it here, right?
These prawns are deep-fried just for a minute in order to retain all their succulent juices, the crispy coating of a light batter providing a lovely contrast of textures. I love the salad they come with it, its flavours being like a summation of what Vietnamese cooking is about: fresh, crunchy ingredients bursting with flavour - sweet, sour, salty all happening in one bite in perfect unison. It actually uses the same sauce you will serve for dipping, the ubiquitous Nuoc Cham. I have made a mental note to include coriander and mint leaves when I make it again, just because I am addicted to these herbs and they feature widely in Vietnamese cooking, so I think the food police has nothing on me.
Way better than cereal prawns, but that's just my personal opinion!!!
(serves 4 as a starter)
about 500 g of prawns (unpeeled, never frozen)
2 tbsp light soy sauce
2 egg whites (lighty beaten)
4 tbsp flour
3 tbsp white sesame seeds
2 tbsp black sesame seeds
3 tbsp white breadcrumbs (or Panko)
oil for frying
For the Nuoc Cham**
5 cloves garlic
5 large chillies
50 ml fish sauce
100 ml water
50 ml rice vinegar
50 g superfine caster sugar
50 ml freshly squeezed lime juice (original uses lemon juice)
For the salad
1 sour green mango***
1 big bunch of rocket leaves (rucola)
1 large red chile
1 handful coriander/cilantro leaves (optional)
1 handful mint leaves (optional)
First, prepare the prawns. This is the fiddliest bit of the recipe by a long way, so do allow enough time.
Take off the head, then peel the shell all the way to the tail, leaving the tail end on (I remove everything except the "fins" or "uropods" - check here for the anatomy of a prawn - but it's less fiddly if you leave the last abdominal segment on as well). With a sharp knife, cut along the back of the prawn to reveal and pull out the intestinal sack. Now cut a slit through the middle of the body to leave a small hole, but the top and bottom remaining intact - just enough to stick your finger through. Going with the natural curve of the prawn, pull the top through the slit to give the prawn a "knotted" appearance. Store in a container in the fridge until ready to cook them.
Now, prepare the Nuoc Cham. Peel and finely chop the garlic, finely slice or dice the chile (removing seeds and membranes first if you prefer it less spicy). In a pan on the stove, combine all the ingredients and heat gently until the sugar has dissolved. Set aside.
For the salad, peel the mango, wash the cucumber. Julienne (= cut into very thin strips, you could use a mandolin to do this for you, if you own one) the flesh of the mango and the cucumber (skin on). Combine in a bowl, adding the rocket leaves. When ready to serve, dress with 4 or 5 tablespoons of the Nuoc Cham and reserve the remainder for dipping.
To make the batter, whisk together the flour, egg whites and soy sauce in a bowl until smooth. In a separate bowl, combine the breadcrumbs and sesame seeds.
To fry the prawns, I like to minimise the amount of oil used, so I don't use my deed-fryer (I should probably get rid of it, as I never use it...). I take a milk pan (stainless steel pot with a handle) of about 15cm in diameter, pour in enough oil for the prawns to be able to float once in the pan and heat it up.
While the oil is heating, pull the prawns gently through the batter, holding them by their tails. Then dip in the breadcrumb & sesame until evenly coated and set aside.
When the oil is piping hot, fry the prawns in batches - place some prawns in the pot, gently moving them so they don't stick together. They should need no more than a minute to be crispy on the outside, but only just cooked and still very juicy on the inside. Make sure your oil is really super hot and don't overcrowd the pot, to ensure the prawns get enough heat to really cook in this short amount of time. Place the prawns on kitchen roll to absorb excess fat.
Serve the prawns on the salad, with some Nuoc Cham on the side for dipping.
* Original recipe can be found in Mark Read's "Lemongrass and Lime", a must-buy if you enjoy modern Vietnamese cooking.
** you will have some left over - halve the recipe if you like
*** sour green mango is available from Asian shops, if you really can't find any, try a very unripe regular mango (the one we used to get in the UK, Kent mango, with a predominantly green skin - Alphonso mango and other tropical varieties would be way to sweet)