Prawns are a must on the Chinese New Year table because its name in Cantonese, ha, is the sound of laughter. It’s probably just an excuse to indulge in the biggest prawns we can afford, and the fishmongers are probably the ones laughing the loudest and longest.
In Penang, I hardly cook. I am all too happy to be pampered, and I have a long list of favourite dishes for my mom to churn out. In my in-laws’ home, I go in anticipation of braised pigs’ trotters in soy sauce and chestnut, or with old ginger and black vinegar.
But somehow, I am now entrusted with cooking the prawn curry for Chinese New Year and Christmas. My mother-in-law e-mailed me the recipe and I tried it out, and next thing I knew it’d become a family favourite. And since this prawn curry has graced our festive table for almost ten years now, I am declaring it a family tradition.
My prawn curry is typically Peranakan – the main ingredients are shallots, turmeric, galangal, chilli, lemongrass and candlenuts. It’s fragranced with kaffir lime leaves, and the gravy’s base is tamarind.
But the star ingredient is of course the prawns. This curry works best with big gigantic prawns; they must be crowned with heads choke full of roe (and cholesterol). They impart their distinct deep briny sweetness to the curry that no stock cube or MSG can come close to replicating.
Don’t buy commercially-bred prawns. Get tiger prawns caught at sea. You don’t usually find the huge ones in the market because they are usually distributed to restaurants. But in the month leading to Chinese New Year, they will be available – and of course, they cost a bomb.
The tiger prawns we had this year were huge – they were about nine-inches long, and we only got eight for a kg. But they were also exceptionally good, with firm and sweet flesh and the best prawn heads ever (sucking on the prawn heads is the best part, so don’t bother being dainty and health-conscious).
Below is the recipe that my mother-in-law gave me, and which I followed faithfully the first time. But because this curry is all about the sour-sweet-salty balance, you have to experiment and improvise as you go along.
Sometimes the dried chillies are hot, sometimes milder. Sometimes a small knob of tamarind goes a long way, sometimes not. Sometimes, the sweetness of the prawns does its magic, sometimes not…you get the idea.
I am a lot more relaxed when I cook this dish now, but I used to be so anxious because the prawns were so costly. But I have also realised that I cannot taste the flavours if I keep testing and testing it… so I just wait till almost the end to check the flavours, and add whatever I think it needs (yeah, I pretend like I know what I am doing).
A hint: salt and sugar are important seasonings.
But I must also say this is a dish worth getting right because it’s absolutely delicious – the heady sweetness of prawns combined with all that aromatic ingredients make for a gutsy full-on feast.
(Female Cookbook 1980)
the notes in italic are mine
8-10 prawns, about 1kg
1/2 cup vegetable oil, you need lots of oil to fry the pounded ingredients until it’s aromatic, absolutely no shortcuts
Pound finely (or blend) :
12 dried chillies, adjust according to yr taste
6 slices galangal
3cm piece fresh turmeric
1 tsp belacan
4-6 candlenuts, or macadamia nuts, or leave out
2-3 stalks lemongrass, bruised
4 kaffir lime leaves
1 1/2 cup of tamarind juice (mix 1 1/2 cup of water with 1 tablespoon of tamarind)
salt and sugar, to taste. Sometimes, you need 2-3 tablespoon of sugar, but it depends on your taste
Cut off the prawns’ whiskers, but do not shell.
Heat oil, and fry pounded ingredients until fragrant and oil shows in bubbles through ingredients. (tumis until naik minyak – which means you must keep the flame low, and patiently stir the rempah until the oil separates and rises to the top. It’ll also be very fragrant, and if the chilli is hot someone will start coughing)
Add tamarind juice, bruised lemon grass, kaffir lime leaves, and season with salt and sugar.
Add prawns, and continue simmering for about 20 minutes uncovered.
I swear I don’t mean to confuse you, but I fry the prawns over high heat with the spice mixture until fragrant. Then, I add the tamarind juice. I also add three tomatoes.
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