Sweet, pink and happy

Updated: 2012-01-07 07:55

By Pauline D. Loh (China Daily)

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Sweet, pink and happy

Chinese cooks love food with meaning. Meals for the Lunar New Year are always brimming with taste and auspicious well wishes. Pauline D. Loh looks at one crucial ingredient for the festive cook.

It's time to start planning the most important family feast of the year, the reunion dinner on the eve of the Spring Festival. The countdown has begun. Apart from the usual dumplings, the must-have chicken and the steamed whole fish, another ingredient that always makes a welcomed dish is prawn. Its lovely pink flesh already suits the theme, for we Chinese love to have bright colors on our table when it comes to celebrative cuisines, just as we are fond of bestowing every dish on the reunion table with auspicious meaning.

Thus, the roast or steamed chicken will be Dazhan Hongtu, or "Prosperity Spreads its Wings". And the fish will augur plenty in the coming year, Niannian Youyu, or "Having A Surplus Every Year". For the prawns, it will be "Laughing all the Way", Xiha Daxiao.

Why do the prawns laugh? It's simply because the Cantonese pronunciation for prawns sounds exactly like "ha, ha, ha!". Good cheer and laughter aside, prawns are popular because they are the most common seafood and so versatile to prepare.

When I first arrived in Beijing in the early 1980s, the only prawns available were the large king prawns frozen, salted and boxed in gift sets sold at the Friendship stores. To a child of the sea brought up within sniffing distance of fishing boats hauling in an abundant catch every morning, those prawns were well, unacceptable.

Things are much changed. Even in the neighborhood supermarkets, you can now buy flash-frozen prawns that are no different from fresh ones. They are sweet and big and suffer no loss of taste from being chilled.

You just have to remember that they are perishable seafood, and once you thaw them in the kitchen, they must be cooked at once. They should never be re-frozen or both texture and taste will never be the same.

There are many famous prawn recipes to pick from, and I have chosen a quartet of favorites to share with you today. They range from strong-flavored to light and showcase this seafood in all its versatility.

The first recipe is my husband's favorite, and he does it very well. It is a simple stir-fry using spring onions and ginger as the major aromatics. We used to have this almost every New Year when our group of Chinese expatriates in Singapore would gather to watch the Spring Festival gala concert on New Year's Eve.

My favorite is the unusual custard with large prawns sitting in the middle. The juices from the prawns flavor the custard and the soft silky texture of the egg complements the sweet crunch of the prawns. Besides, the dish always earns me a chorus of "oos" and "ahs", and what cook doesn't enjoy compliments?

The salad is an invention to fill the gap when we have Western guests at the table. It's a fail-safe pleaser that provides comfort zone for those unused to the exotic offerings on a Chinese table.

Finally, my last recipe is homage to my birthplace, Singapore. We love our seafood, and chili crab is almost a national dish. For convenience, though, I sometimes prefer to serve prawns instead of crabs. It's easier to shell a prawn than crack a crab, and the taste is just as sweet.

Again, if you have any difficulty with any of the recipes, please feel free to e-mail me at paulined@chinadaily.com.cn, wherever you are.

Recipe | Prawn & avocado salad

Ingredients (serves 4):

500 g medium prawns

500 g mixed salad greens

2 avocados, sliced

1/2 red capsicum, diced

1/2 yellow capsicum, diced

8 cherry tomatoes, sliced

4 large tbsp yoghurt

1 tbsp honey

2 tbsp caviar (or any fish roe)

Juice of 1 lemon


1. Bring a large pot of water to the boil and add prawns. As soon as the prawns turn pink, remove, cool and shell them at once.

3. Cut each prawn into two lengthwise, and remove any dark veins. Chill in the fridge until needed.

4. Divide the mixed salad greens into four portions. Add the sliced avocados and cherry tomatoes, and, finally, the chilled prawns.

5. Place the yoghurt, honey and lemon juice into a screw-cap jar and shake well to mix.

6. Spoon the dressing over the prawns and salad and garnish with the fish roe/caviar and the diced red and yellow capsicum. This salad tastes even better after chilling in the fridge.

Food notes:

When you need to cook prawns for a salad, the secret is to have it just cooked and still crisp to the bite. An overcooked prawn becomes tough and tasteless.

Use plenty of water, lightly salted, and bring it to a boil. Add the prawns only when the water is rapidly boiling. Plunge the prawns in and wait until the water comes back to a boil. By then, the prawns will have turned pink. Immediately pour the whole pot into a sieve, and refresh in cold water. This stops any further cooking and your prawns will retain their crispness and sweetness.

Recipe | Spring onion prawns

Sweet, pink and happy

Ingredients (serves 4):

500 g large gray prawns

2 bunches spring onions, cut into 5-cm lengths

5-6 slices young ginger, shredded

1 tbsp corn starch

1 tbsp top-grade light soy sauce

1 tbsp Chinese wine

1 tsp sugar

1 tsp sesame oil


1. Trim off prawn feelers and feet. Remove segment of shell from the middle of each prawn, and slit the back to remove dark veins.

2. Rinse prawns and pat very dry. Dust lightly with corn starch.

3. Heat up some oil in a large frying pan and throw in the ginger and spring onions. When the ginger sizzles and turns a little brown around the edges, add the prawns.

4. Keeping the heat high, fry the prawns until the shells caramelize slightly and turn a little white in patches.

5. Lower heat and add soy sauce, sesame oil and sugar. Toss to coat the prawns evenly with the sauce. Drizzle the Chinese wine down the side of the frying pan and stir-fry quickly.

6. Prawns are cooked when they turn completely pink. Serve garnished with more spring onions, little red chili strips and maybe some lettuce.

Food notes:

The Chinese believe happy food makes a happy occasion, and this is a classic example. Called "Har Luk" in Cantonese, this is a banquet dish for any festivity, including the all-important Lunar New Year reunion dinner. Make sure you have the fire at its strongest when you are frying the prawns. This is what gives it the characteristic "burnt caramel" taste.

Sweet, pink and happy

Recipe |

Prawns in singaporean chili sauce

Ingredients (serves 4):

8-10 large prawns

8 cloves garlic, peeled

8 red shallots, peeled

5 cm knob of ginger, skinned

8 red chilies, seeded

1 tbsp good quality bean sauce (doujiang)

2 tbsp sugar

2 tbsp white vinegar

2 tbsp tomato sauce

1 tbsp corn starch


2 eggs, beaten

Coriander to garnish


1. Pound garlic, shallots, ginger and chili together in a rough paste.

2. Heat up oil in a large frying pan, and sear the prawns over high heat until just cooked. Remove.

3. Put the pounded ingredients into the pan and fry over medium heat until fragrant and the oil has risen to the surface again. Add the bean paste and fry until well-blended.

4. Add the prawns and toss to coat. In the meantime, combine sugar, vinegar, corn starch, tomato sauce and enough water to make up a rice bowl. Pour this mixture over the prawns and stir well so gravy does not stick.

5. Watch the consistency of the sauce, thinning it to the thickness you prefer. Season to taste, adding more salt or sugar as desired.

6. Just before serving, pour the beaten egg into the hot pan and remove immediately. Garnish and serve with crusty bread.

Food notes:

Here is how we make Singapore's favorite chili crab - using prawns. This recipe can be adapted to any seafood, including crabs, lobsters and prawns. If you use large prawns, crabs or lobsters, shorten the cooking time by frying or steaming the seafood first. This prevents the sauce from curdling or thickening to a lumpy paste. Prepare more in advance and keep frozen. Add the beaten egg only when you are ready to remove from heat.

Recipe | Festive prawn custard

Ingredients (serves 4):

8 large prawns or 16 medium prawns

150 ml chicken stock

2 egg whites

Salt and pepper to taste


1. Shell the prawns, keeping the tails and heads. Rub well with salt, rinse and pat very dry. Cut the prawns along the back to open up like a butterfly. Make a small slit in the middle and tuck the prawn tails through.

2. Using a fork or a pair of chopsticks, gently break up the filaments in the egg white without whipping up a froth. Slowly add the chicken stock and season to taste.

3. Strain the white custard mixture into a deep flat dish and position the prawns on the mixture.

4. Place the dish on a rack and steam over gently simmering water for 10 minutes or until the prawns have turned pink and are cooked.

5. Garnish with spring onions or coriander and serve hot.

Food notes:

We eat with our eyes, and the pretty colors of this delightful steamed dish wins the brownie points. Prawns cook easily, as do eggs, and the way to make sure the custard is baby smooth is to allow the dish to steam over low simmering heat. If the egg white custard is cooked over high heat, it will bubble and become pork-marked.