Chengdu Challenge #11: Dry-Braised Shrimp With Crispy Pork (Gan Shao Xia)
Unusual Juxtapositions Bring Unusual Compliments~~
In America, everything’s better with bacon on it. In Sichuan, everything’s better with crispy-brown ground pork. You might think, as I did, that big fresh shrimp don’t need the added attraction of a crispy pork topping. But you’d be wrong, as I was. This is a fantastic combination, bumped up by earthy-salty yacai (pickled mustard greens) and pickled hot chili peppers.
It’s really like two dishes in one. First, you get your hands in there to remove the shells from the fat, juicy shrimp—licking the shell clean beforehand, of course. Then after you’ve devoured the pork-tinged shrimp, you’ve still got a bowlful of crispy, savory, shrimp-tinged pork to flavor your rice.
So many Sichuan dishes are crowned with this crispy pork mince—dan dan noodles, dry-fried green beans, mapo doufu (substituting beef)—that I was happy to find an explanation of sorts in Mrs. Chiang’s Szechwan Cookbook (1976):
[Fish with meat sauce] exemplifies the Szechwanese taste for unusual juxtapositions of ingredients. Cooking in meat sauce, shaoz, is a favorite Szechwanese method. Mrs. Chiang makes noodles, bean curd, and eggplant that way. Like the fish, they are all marvelously spicy dishes, redolent with garlic and hot pepper paste, and are absolutely delicious.
After reading that description I’ll be making Mrs. Chiang’s fish with meat sauce very soon. But her description could apply equally well to this recipe for dry-braised shrimp with crispy pork, which came from Sichuan Cuisine in Both Chinese and English. Her meat sauce is not crispy as this is, but it’s the same basic idea.
As in most Asian shrimp dishes, the shrimp is cooked shell-on because it preserves the moisture and texture; believe me, it’s worth the sticky fingers. The only glitch is the two-step process for cooking the shrimp, with a quick dip in hot oil to pre-cook it before the stir-fry—yet another method for keeping the shrimp tender, and worth the extra effort. By all means use head-on shrimp as they would in Sichuan if you are so inclined and if you can find them.
The spice in this dish comes from pickled red chili peppers, a distinctly Sichuan approach to the chili pepper that is hard to find readymade in America; you pretty much have to make your own or use the reasonably good substitute of Indonesian-style sambal oelek, easily found in the U.S. See my discussion on these options here.
In case you’re still thinking that this shrimp-pork combo is just weird, here’s a story about my daughter’s response the first time I made it. Seafood lover that she is, having spent her first 11 years in Guangzhou, Fong Chong has a constant craving for fish and shellfish here in land-locked Nashville.
Eating this dish for the first time, she licked her fingers in ecstasy and said, “I still think your food is better than my home food.”
You still think that? You’ve never said that! You’ve never thought that! You think my Chinese food is better than the Chinese food you grew up on in China?
As she confirmed that’s what she meant, Craig and I both had to steady ourselves, knowing how hard we had worked to feed her and please her over the three years she had been our daughter—and how often we had failed.
Of course I know that a lot of that love is due to the fact that I make spicy Sichuan food, and she could seldom get her hands on that in mild-mannered Cantonese-food land.
But I’ll take it. In fact, I’ll not only take it, I’ll take it to heart, and rank it right up there as one of the greatest accomplishments of my life.
- 1 pound (450 grams) large shell-on shrimp
- ¼ pound (about 100 grams) ground pork
- 1 teaspoon Chinese light soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon Shaoxing wine
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 2 to 4 teaspoons chopped pickled red chilies or sambal oelek
- 5 scallions, cut in ½-inch sections
- 2 teaspoons finely chopped ginger
- 2 teaspoons finely chopped garlic
- ⅓ cup chicken stock
- 2 tablespoons yacai
- 1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon sesame oil
- Cut along back of shrimp and de-vein them, leaving shell on.
- Heat wok on high flame until just starting to smoke. Add about a cup of peanut oil or canola oil, enough to deep-fry the shrimp in one or two batches. Heat oil to 300°F (150°C) and deep-fry shrimp until pink and partially cooked. Remove and drain on paper towel.
- Pour off all but 2 tablespoons oil and reheat until hot. Add pork and break it up into small bits as you cook. Add soy sauce, 1 teaspoon Shaoxing wine and ½ teaspoon salt and continue to stir-fry until the pork is brown and lightly crispy.
- Add the pickled chilies, scallion, ginger and garlic and stir-fry briefly to bring out their aroma. Add stock, ya cai, 1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine, sugar and ½ teaspoon salt and bring to a boil. Add back the shrimp and simmer briefly, until shrimp is done and sauce is mostly absorbed. Add sesame oil and remove to a serving plate. Collect compliments.