During our year living in the then filthy, now thriving (but still filthy) Stokes Croft in Bristol, my best friend and I visited a fairly mediocre local Chinese called Great Wall (before we had discovered the wonderful and far superior Mayflower just a few steps further). The menu featured a ‘Slat & Pepper’ section, so combining this enjoyable error with our joint love of the Junior Special song (featuring the abbreviation ‘pep’ in its lyrics), amongst us salt and pepper prawns were known only as ‘Slat Pep’.
Slat Pep prawns featured as part of the legendary £6 starter-and-main deal at the now devastatingly defunct Fung’s, served with garlic, chilli and spring onion that were seemingly affixed to the extremely crunchy battered prawns. I was determined to discover the secrets to this dish that we fell in love with. I would grill Echo the waitress with little success, other than the one time she reacted in surprise to me theorising that Ray might cook them earlier in the day letting them cool, then re-fry upon order with the other ingredients. I had obviously uncovered one of the important aspects of this dish, but there was more to learn. I have to say, this recipe is my single most tested and explored recipe. On multiple occasions I have cooked four batches in a row making slight variations, still failing to replicate the memorable starter. Just writing about it now is making me hungry for them.
Before pouring out the oil, make sure the pot is entirely dry by heating it over the flame for a bit. Always keep water-soluble liquids away from the oil, as when hot the oil will react very aggressively. If your oil ever ignites, never use water to extinguish the fire, as flaming boiling oil will be expelled from the pot. Suffocate the flame by covering it, preferably with a mildly damp towel. Now back to the fun stuff! One secret of a crispy battered prawn is to make it the final part of the meal you cook. You can cook them earlier in the day and then re-cook in the wok when everything else is ready, but the best and unhealthiest results I’ve had come from deep-frying the prawn for a second time (takeaway technique) before combining with wok ingredients; rock solid! If you only cook them once and are not reheating them in the wok, make sure they’re the last part of the meal you make and eat them, before the moisture in the prawns causes their crunchiness to fade. You must heat at the right temperature. 200c degrees must be reached and maintained, or the batter will likely be mostly chewy. However, going much over 200c will burn the batter. I highly recommend buying a cooking thermometer (or even a deep-fat fryer), unless you’re not bothered about the specifics of batter quality.
Get your prawns from an oriental food shop. You can get near to a kilo of frozen tiger / king prawns for £9-12. The supermarket will charge you sometimes twice as much for a miserable pack of ‘fresh’ jumbo prawns that have been defrosted.
First put some water in the fridge to cool, or add ice. Begin heating the oil, I use a whole 1l bottle and use the oil around 5 times before getting rid of it (it will become darkened, bitter, and more susceptible to burning after too many uses or becoming too contaminated with artefacts). Once you are ready to dispose of the oil, return it to the bottle and throw it in the rubbish, or before it turns too dark, use as your normal cooking oil. For deep-frying, an oil with a high smoke point is needed; some oils will burn at lower temperatures than others. Common oils used for deep-frying are corn, ground nut, and vegetable. If I don’t have further upcoming deep-fry sessions planned, I pour the cooled oil in to a jug, then pour from the jug through a strainer / fine sieve, back in to the bottle (mum I left a full bottle in the cupboard, used once).
You’ll need a few bowls. De-vein your prawns by slicing them along the back and washing out the black intestine threading through the prawn, the easiest way to do this is to slice them all, put them in a bowl of water, then use your fingers to clean them as you transfer each one to a colander or sieve. Rinse and drain. Re-use the bowl to make your batter in, and use another bowl or plate for dusting the prawns giving them the dry surface needed to stick the batter to the prawn. Also you may want to set aside a bowl of water to rinse your fingers and utensils in whilst working. I use 10 grams of flour and 10 millilitres of water per prawn, there will be some excess batter left over because you need enough to immerse the food you’re coating.
Work quickly through this section and try to keep one hand dry and clean: a few at a time, dust the prawns all over by shaking around in a bowl with flour, lift with your dry hand and shake off the loose flour, drop in the batter and turn with the fork. Don’t use your fingers to pick the prawns out because you’ll end up pulling off batter, so use the fork or a pair of tongs to move them to the oil one at a time, and don’t drop from a height. Don’t put too many in the oil at once as the temperature will drop too much. Cook for around 5 minutes and drain on a rack.
Combine the diced garlic, chilli and spring onion in a bowl with the salt and corn flour. Heat the prawns in the wok for a few minutes on low to medium if they have cooled, then splash the prawns with rice wine vinegar and quickly dump the diced ingredients on top (don’t breathe in the evaporating vinegar!). The corn flour and liquid will combine to act as a binding agent and hopefully cause some of the ingredients to stick to the prawns! If this is important to you, move and turn the prawns carefully and sparingly to keep the bits attached. Add a little oil to prevent burning.
6 raw de-veined king / tiger prawns
- Coat in flour.
30g corn flour
30g wheat flour
Pinch baking powder
Pinch ground black pepper
60ml cold water
- Briefly roughly mix to include lumps. Quickly coat prawn, fry 200c for 5 minutes. Drain. Add to wok on medium when ready to serve.
Diced garlic clove
Chopped spring onion green
Pinch of salt
Tsp corn flour
- Combine, splash prawns in wok with rice wine vinegar, add coating ingredients, fry on low heat.
Shallow fry prawns in dry salted corn flour coating as a quick crunchy batter substitute.
Soak prawns in rice wine vinegar and rub in seasoned grated garlic before dusting in flour.
Make a ‘second batter’ by adding liquid to the garlic, chilli, spring onion and corn flour mix. Then roll the battered prawn in the solution before reheating it in the wok.
Try using Szechuan pepper corns.