First off, Xin Nian Kuai Le 新年快樂 (Happy New Year in Mandarin) and Gong Hei Fatt Choy 恭喜發財 (Well Wishes and Prosperity in Cantonese) to all my readers who are celebrating the Lunar New Year.
I hope everything good breeds like bunnies for you and your families - this is the Rabbit year in the Chinese zodiac cycle. This week it's back to the grind for Life is Great but we're really still in a very festive mood. So in keeping with the celebration theme and while you're still tossing your yee sang 魚生 (raw fish salad), counting your ang pows 红包 (money-filled red packets to bring luck) and hovering over those pineapple tarts and peanut cookies trying very hard to exude some self control, let me share with you something traditional from my family.
Aside from chicken, fish and various specialty seafood, like abalone and sea cucumber, prawns are also a common item in a festive menu, due to its pronunciation in Cantonese being similar to the sound of laughter 哈哈笑 (har har siu). Har (Cantonese: shrimp/prawn) Lok (Cantonese: roast/fry/grill) was one of the dishes my late father cooked every Chinese New Year. It is a Chinese dish consisting of prawns or shrimp with a sweet and savory sauce flavored with chili and tomato sauce. Common ingredients going into the sauce to add texture and flavor would be either fermented soybeans (tauchu 豆酱), fermented black beans (touchi 豆豉) or XO sauce, onion and garlic. He dug the recipe out of a chef from a restaurant in KL's Chinatown years ago and kept this dish as a New Year specialty. He would go to the markets a month before New Year to grab the largest jumbo tiger prawns he could get his hands on as seafood, like many other foodstuffs and produce would be expensive approaching the big day.
This year my mother came over to Singapore to celebrate and cooked the dish although it was not originally planned. I bought the best looking large prawns I saw at the market thinking they would go well with a mushroom and broccoli stir fry. After discovering that I actually got her some top quality jumbo tiger prawns instead of regular-sized grass prawns, she declared that Har Lok would be the only way to pay respect to the beautiful ingredient. I wasn't about to argue with my mother and was pretty happy with the prospect of an extra dish for dinner on the first day of New Year. The only problem was I didn't have any tauchu or tomato sauce in my pantry. Luckily for us Cold Storage was in business even on Chor Yat 初一 (first day of the New Year).
I prefer my late father's version as his is more spicy - no, I'm not telling my mum this, of course (I hope she's not reading this). You can use regular prawns for this but keep them whole, butterflied and deveined instead of segmented if they are not large enough. If you, like me, like your sauce with more texture, only lightly chop the shallots and get the whole bean tauchu to mince by hand. The paste version of tauchu is less superior and will not provide anything much to chew on. I'd add some chopped chilies next time for more heat but really, this is the kind of recipe you can play around with to your heart and taste buds' content.
No matter how you decide to make this - with small prawns, big prawns, soybeans, black beans, XO sauce, hoisin sauce - just remember to cook some jasmine rice, steam (or better yet, fry!) some Chinese buns (mantou 饅頭 - aren't they adorable?) or bake some bread to mop up all the goodness on the plate after there's nothing left but shells.
Gong Hei Fatt Fatt and all the very best for this New Year!
Har Lok (虾烙): Tiger Prawns with Spicy Fermented Bean Sauce
Serves 4 to 6
- 1 kilogram jumbo tiger prawns (about 8 prawns)
- 10 shallots, roughly chopped
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 4 tablespoons fermented soybeans (tauchu, whole bean or paste)*
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1-2 tablespoons water
- 4 tablespoons chili sauce
- 3 tablespoons tomato sauce
- 3 tablespoons oyster sauce
- a handful of fresh coriander including stems, chopped, reserve some leaves for garnish
- peanut oil for frying
- 1 teaspoon cornstarch mixed with 2 teaspoons water
- a small pinch of salt
Clean the prawns by removing the beards and legs. Snip off the sharp end of the tails and segment the prawns into four parts - head, two segments from the body and one from the tail. Using a pair of tweezers, remove any visible digestive tracks (or as I call them - poo shoots, heh). If using medium-sized prawns, keep them whole, butterfly and devein as usual. Chop the fermented soybeans or bean paste with the sugar and set aside in a bowl. Mix the chili, tomato and oyster sauce in another bowl.
Heat up oil in a large wok. On high flame, fry the shallots and garlic till fragrant. Add in the tauchu and sugar mix. Fry for a couple of minutes and add the sauce mixture. Combine well for another 3 minutes. Add a little water to the sauce mixture and fold in the prawns. Toss evenly with the sauce for 2 minutes. Cover for 1 minute. Remove lid and toss for another 2 minutes or till prawns are just cooked.
Thicken the sauce according to your liking with the cornstarch mixture. Season to taste by adding a little salt sparingly just to flavor as the tauchu is already salty. Remove to a serving platter and garnish with some picked coriander leaves and serve warm with your choice of rice, bun or bread.
* Fermented soybeans can be found at supermarkets or Asian grocers.