Szechuan food is boldly flavored and spicy because of the liberal use of chilies and Szechuan peppercorns. The heat in this dish of Szechuan shrimps with plum sauce is not too numbing. The secret? Balance heat with sweetness. That’s what the plum sauce is for. Not only does it mellow down the heat from the spices, the plum sauce also adds a delightful fruitiness that has a subtle tang.
What is Szechuan food? Is that another name for Chinese food? Yes and no. If you think that Chinese food is defined by what is served in your neighborhood Chinese restaurant, think again. There are eight regional cuisines of China and the flavors of each are characterized by the produce of the region. Most of us are only familiar with Cantonese food, a branch of Guandong cuisine, as interpreted by Chinese immigrants who opened restaurants in their new home countries.
While the term “Szechuan food” may not sound so familiar, it may come as a surprise that we may actually be more than casually acquainted (maybe good friends, even) with a few Szechuan dishes. Kung Pao chicken, ma po tofu and dandan noodles all come from the Szechuan region of China.
My Szechuan shrimps with plum sauce is an interpretation of the traditional Szechuan shrimps dish. There are many recipes available; almost all have one or two sweet ingredients to balance the heat. Some cooks use hoisin sauce, others use sugar while some others prefer honey. I like plum sauce. Why settle for plain sweetness when the dish can have a fruity sweetness?
So, we had this delightful seafood dish for dinner last night. I am so thrilled to announce that I have overcome my allergy to shrimps. Unfortunately, the allergy jumped from me to Alex and she is now unable to eat shrimps without repercussions. I cooked a fish steak dish alongside the shrimps because I thought that only Speedy and I would be eating the shrimps. But Alex couldn’t resist. She ate a few pieces. A bad tummy ache followed. Regretful, really, but if I was able to overcome my allergy, so will she. In time.
Now, the recipe… As with most stir fried dishes, the prep time is longer than the cooking time. Shrimps take such effort and time to peel and devein but they cook in just a few minutes. I urge you not to overcook them. When done right, shrimps are tender and succulent, naturally sweet and utterly delicious.
Plum sauce is available in the Asian aisle of better groceries. Several brands offer it; I prefer Lee Kum Kee (no, this is not a sponsored post).
The sesame seeds are optional. If you decide to add them as garnish, it doesn’t really matter if you use white or black or brown. What’s important is that you toast them before sprinkling on the dish. Otherwise, although they will add color, they won’t impart any distinguishable flavor and aroma.
Szechuan Shrimps With Plum Sauce
- 500 grams shrimps (10 to 12 large pieces), peeled and deveined
- finely ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon Szechuan peppercorns
- 1 bell pepper
- 1 small carrot
- 2 cloves garlic
- 1 half-inch knob ginger
- 2 bird's eye chilies
- 2 tablespoons cooking oil
- rice vinegar
- rice wine
- soy sauce
- 1/4 cup plum sauce (I used Lee Kum Kee)
- finely sliced scallions to garnish
- toasted sesame seeds to garnish
Place the peeled and deveined shrimps in a bowl and sprinkle lightly with salt and black pepper. Toss.
Using a mortar and pestle or a food processor, grind the Szechuan peppercorns to a powder.
Deseed the bell pepper and dice.
Peel the carrot and cut into thin slices.
Peel and mince the garlic.
Peel and finely chop the ginger.
Finely slice the chilies.
Heat the cooking oil in a wok.
Saute the powdered Szechuan peppercorns, garlic, ginger and chilies for about one to two minutes.
Turn up the heat. Add the carrot and bell pepper to the wok. Sprinkle in a little salt and black pepper. Stir fry for a minute.
Add a generous splash each of rice vinegar and rice wine, and a tiny drizzle of soy sauce.
Stir in the plum sauce and allow the mixture to come to a simmer.
Throw in the shrimps. Toss the shrimps in the sauce for two to three minutes, or just until done.
Scoop the shrimps and sauce into a bowl. Garnish the Szechuan shrimps with plum sauce with toasted sesame seeds and finely sliced scallions before serving.