September 19, 2021 —
How do you choose between your favourite ways to eat king prawns?
I like them fried in garlic, chilli and oil à la gambas al ajillo, but I also like them straightened and deep-fried with panko bread crumbs, or wrapped in filo pastry. They are surprisingly good pre-cooked in salted water and peeled when cold and served with lemon and aioli, or marinated in lemon, garlic and chilli and simply thrown on a blazing barbecue, or as a ceveche with lime and chilli. They’re delicious in a hot paella – or if perchance you are in Louisianian there’s nothing better than a po’ boy sandwich or a specialty gumbo, and then there are featured king prawns in any of the world’s famous fish stews (such as Ligurian buridda, Tuscan cacciucco, Spanish zarzuela, or Californian cioppino). We shouldn’t forget fragrant Thai king prawn currys, and what about nigri sushi?
It’s a tough question… However, perhaps just tipping the scales – if cooked to perfection – is tempura prawns with delicous dipping sauces.
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6 raw king prawns with shells
Vegetable oil for frying
For the tempura batter
100g Japanese ready-made mixed tempura batter flour
160ml ice cold sparkling water
75g plain flour
1/4 tsp baking powder
1 large egg yolk
150ml – 200ml ice cold sparkling water
For the dipping sauces
Japanese ponzu from a bottle
Thai sweet chilli sauce from a bottle
Small piece of ginger
1 chopped spring onion
1 tbs light soy sauce
1 tbs sake
1/2 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp sesame oil
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A question of batter
Batters of all kinds are a huge issue in the kitchen. It seems everybody has their own opinions based on secret ingredients and procedures passed down from culinary luminaries either in the media, industry or the home. However, surely, it’s not rocket science.
For starters you need flour. Plain wheat flour generally fits the bill, however some add other flours, such as cornflour, potato starch or rice flour – these can add extra lightness and crispness. Then the liquids. Milk is often used, but can be rather heavy, water is lighter and the preferred liquid for tempura, alcohol is sometimes used as it evaporates into vapour very quickly so creates lightness. Beer is a good example – but the effect of the alcohol can be amplified for purists with spirits in particular a flavourless vodka. Baking powder causes the batter to rise with the interaction of acids and heat so lightens the batter. Eggs are often added for flavour and leavening. Seasoning is optional, depending on how the batter will served. Then there’s the temperature. Batters should be cold. It appears the shock of cold and heat that accelerates the cooking and crisping process – but there are other factors at play here as the cold temperature seems to improve the cooking of the ingredients. Many go to extreme lengths to keep all the ingredients very cold, including putting the flour in the fridge or freezer… What about bubbles? Well, that’s fairly obvious way to inject lightness. Most recipes stipulate that the batter is not over-worked, even to the point of keeping in the lumps. This advice relates to developing glutens through over-beating, which will make a batter tough. For the same reason, some recipes say to rest the batter to allow the glutens to relax,
When it comes to tempura batter, most of the batter armoury comes into play, unfortunately all the recipes I can find are caught in a cycle of who-knows-best and each is different and – may or not – contain any of the following: wheat and corn flours, baking powder, ice-cold sparkling water, water and ice cubes, eggs or egg yolks – and for obsessives a splash of vodka.
A brilliant cheat
Even so, tempura is very difficult to get right. But fear not, help is at hand at your local Japanese/Oriental food store in the form of ready-made tempura batter flour. Don’t feel guilty that you are not mastering the craft from scratch or may not have triumphed through endless hours of trial and error or cannot boast that you have the ultimate knack for making the perfect tempura. Life’s too short to stress over tempura – especially when there are products as good as this available…
There are a few cheats going on here. Thai versions of chilli sauce from bottles are just right: not too sweet, not too hot. I have therefore given up trying to make this sauce from scratch – even though I feel obliged, having watched Peter Gordon make one in a flash at a cooking demonstration. One of my favourite dipping sauces is ponzu, it’s a common condiment in Japan and now available in posher supermarkets and certainly from Japanese/Oriental food stores. The other dipping sauce is based on using the prawn shells to make a stock. Otherwise, as in the piece above, I’ve used ready-made tempura batter flour.
NB: There will be an amount of batter left over. You could cut thin slices of courgette, butternut squash, along with shitake mushrooms and green beans and coat in the remaining tempura batter and fry these with the prawns.
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