Shallot prawns. This wonderfully simple, yet astonishingly delicious recipe comes courtesy of Auntie Choong, matriarch of the family that lived across the road.
The Choong family played a big part in my formative years. Auntie Choong had ten children, out of whom I was close to a few, particularly her youngest son Mark. My childhood was marked by fond memories of Auntie Choong and my mum walking to each other’s houses bearing the latest food they had cooked. Perks of living in small towns: neighbours are truly neighbourly.
“Wong Thai (Mrs Wong) ah,” Auntie Choong would call from outside our gate. “I just made some Teochew kuih. Let you try.”
The next day, it would be my mum’s turn to hail from their gate, “Choong thai ah , I just made some mooncake. Please try and let me know whether it’s as good as yours.”
Yes, Auntie Choong was the one who taught my mum how to make mooncake, bak chang (Chinese dumplings) and a litany of other delicacies. I suppose when you have so many children, being a kitchen ace is a compulsory life skill. From Chinese to Western to Peranakan cuisine, Auntie Choong is one of those genius cooks who can recreate any dish once she sets her mind to cracking the code.
Happily, Auntie Choong passed her adventurous culinary spirit to my childhood friend Mark.
Like everybody else during lockdown, Mark – who settled down in Melbourne years ago – has been cooking up a storm. So we two old friends found ourselves furiously exchanging photos of our cooking and recipes over whatsapp, just like our mothers used to trade recipes and food.
The diversity and breadth of his repertoire was astonishing. His house turned into a virtual international restaurant as he whipped up bun rieu, osso bucco on polenta, oxtail ragu, ants climbing a tree, lamb kofta, as well as dishes that reminded him of Malaysia, such as bak chang, serimuka and kuih talam. Many of them were complicated stuff that I, a neophyte cook, would never dare attempt (not yet, anyway).
Then one day, Mark made something that looked uncharacteristically simple.
Me: “What’s that?”
Mark: “Shallot prawns. Mum used to make it for us all the time. One of the best home style prawn dishes ever. So simple too.”
Me: “Really? Never heard of such a dish. Is it your mum’s invention?”
Mark: “Not sure. No real back story except we all grew up eating it and loving it. I don’t know anyone else who cooks this dish outside the family. It’s like Nonna Choong’s recipe LOL.”
The hairs on my back stood up. A potentially first-in-the-world, 100% original recipe?
“Mark!” I pleaded. “Could you please please please ask Auntie if she would allow me to publish it on my website?”
After a nerve-racking few days, Mark came back and told me Auntie Choong had given permission to share her recipe. Yay!
I did a double take when he whatsapped the recipe to me.
Only five lines of instructions? And only three ingredients?
More to convince myself that something so simple could be as nice as Mark claimed, I tried out the recipe that very night.
And at the first bite … wow!!
The smokiness of mildly charred crispy shallots, the umami from the soy sauce and the sweetness of the prawns made a mind-blowing combination.
Subtle yet intense at the same time, the dish was soooo good with steaming white rice. I understood instantly why it’s a Choong family favourite.
And now, with Auntie’s permission, I am happy to share the only known such recipe of shallot prawns, one that originated from the Choong family in Taman Merdeka, Ipoh.
So, this whole episode got me thinking that COVID19 hasn’t been that bad after all. The pandemic got us to flex our creativity. It brought together two old friends to bond over their mutual love for food. And perhaps, more meaningfully, it inspired us to share precious stories that helped us appreciate our mothers anew.
I’ll toast to that.
- 200 g small to medium prawns, deshelled and deveined (Recipe Notes 1)
- 4-5 shallots, thinly sliced
- 1 tbsp light soya sauce (See Recipe Notes 2)
- Oil for frying (Recipe Notes 3)
- Heat up 3tbs of oil in the wok. Add sliced shallots and fry until golden and crispy. Set fried shallots aside. Reserve oil in the wok.
- Add prawns to reserved oil in wok and stir fry for 1-2 minutes on each side until almost fully cooked.
- Add fried shallots and soy sauce.
- Stir roughly to mix. Dish up and serve with hot white rice.
- This is one prawn dish that works well without shells. You want the prawn meat to absorb as much of the shallot oil and soya sauce flavours as possible. It’s also one of those rare prawn dishes where smaller prawns work better because the smaller surface area means more contact with the flavouring agents. If you don't have small prawns, just slice your big prawns into half.
- Any light soya sauce will do but if you can, use the First Draw Soy Sauce from Mu Artisan. Described as "100% first extraction of soy sauce, coming from the brewing urns after 9 months fermentation", the intensity from the full body taste, rich aroma, and punch of sweetness really takes the dish up to another level.
- As there are very few ingredients, you want their natural flavours to shine through, so use a neutral oil such as corn, peanut, canola or rice bran. Olive or coconut oil would be too overpowering.
- The key is generous amount of shallots, getting the shallots to an ideal level of doneness.
- You can pre-marinate prawns with some salt.
- For added aroma, you can add a few drops of sesame oil at the end, though personally I prefer the dish without.
For more delicious prawn recipes, try my creamy pepper prawns!