Image description: Prawn paste chicken
There are many things that can be improved by sitting in a sealed jar for an extended period of time, in particular fermented shrimp paste. Uncooked, it can be intensely fishy, savoury, salty, and pungent. It is a prominent ingredient in several Southeast Asian cuisines, with many regional variations, taking the form of anything ranging from a solid block to a pale pink liquid.
Image description: Fermented shrimp paste
One of my favourite flavour profiles is Chinchalok, a savoury-sour-sweet relish made with fermented shrimp paste, lime juice, chillies, and shallots that perfectly balances the fishy intensity and goes with pretty much everything. Once cooked, however, fermented shrimp paste’s dominant flavour melts into an aromatic background funkiness that elevates every bite. A great example of this is the very popular prawn paste fried chicken, or Har Cheong Kai as it is known in Singapore. They’re usually served as chicken wings, but I’ve put together the following recipe to use for bite-sized chicken pieces and was just as satisfied.
Prawn paste fried chicken (Har Cheong Kai)
Marinade: lLight soy sauce, dark soy sauce, sesame oil, Chinese cooking wine, salt, white pepper, fermented shrimp paste, cornstarch, chicken powder (optional).
Batter: all purpose flour, cornstarch
Garnish: lime, small chillies (think Tesco Bird Eye chillies), garlic, Sriracha, chicken powder, sugar, hot water or a splash of hot chicken stock if you have some lying around
Prepare your chicken by slicing it into bite sized pieces. I would recommend using chicken thighs because they are juicier, but take note that they require a slightly longer cooking time. You’d also need to control the heat of the oil later on to prevent the outside from burning before the inside is cooked. Alternatively, use chicken wings! They are great fun to eat and incredibly satisfying to get your teeth into.
Put your meat of choice into a bowl and add all the marinade ingredients to it. Unfortunately (and quite annoyingly for a written medium – many apologies) I mostly operate via the power of freestyling and so do not have exact proportions available. Luckily, marinades are very forgiving, so as long as you’re not completely off you’ll be good to go flavour-wise. I’d recommend a good glug of light soy sauce, a much smaller glug of dark soy sauce, a drizzle of sesame oil, a slightly larger drizzle of Chinese cooking wine, a sprinkle of salt, and equal size dashes of white pepper and chicken powder. For the fermented shrimp paste, a tablespoon or two is sufficient depending on how funky you want your end product to be. The cornstarch is really just there to help the flavours adhere onto the meat better, so don’t add too much.
I’ve found recipes that simply brine the chicken in warm water, sugar, and fermented shrimp paste produce results that are a bit too sweet and lacking on the savoury side for my liking. The main problem I’ve encountered was that salt needs to be incorporated early in order to effectively and thoroughly permeate the meat. Simply garnishing each wing with a sprinkle of salt post-fry was therefore insufficient. The other end of the spectrum is ending up with a bite that is way too salty, so for the inexperienced I would recommend mixing together all ingredients except the cornstarch and the fermented shrimp paste and tasting before adding to the chicken. Volume also matters – your meat should not be drowning in the bowl.
If you’ve got your timing right, you’ll be enjoying crunchy, juicy, and intensely savoury chicken with a delectable aftertaste (not fishy at all!) and a gorgeous umami throughout the bite.
Leave the chicken to marinate in the fridge overnight, and then take it out the next day and pour away the excess marinade. Prepare the batter by adding a one to one ratio of cornstarch and all purpose flour to a bowl, and mix the dry ingredients thoroughly before adding water. The final texture of the batter should be able to coat a spoon thickly but shouldn’t be too thick in that it becomes sludgy to manipulate.
Heat up your oil in a wok to a medium heat, and fry your chicken in small batches so as not to reduce the heat of the oil too much. Unfortunately, you’re unlikely to find a meat thermometer or an oil thermometer in your student accommodation kitchens, so I always test fry a piece and note how long until it is fully cooked on the first fry. Timing is important – if you’ve used chicken wings, they’ll need longer to fry than bite-sized chicken thighs. I personally really enjoy double frying – put the batter-coated pieces into the oil for a few minutes until the meat is mostly cooked and the batter has formed a sealed, lightly coloured crust. Then, turn up the heat and return the rested pieces to the hotter oil until golden brown. If you’ve got your timing right, you’ll be enjoying crunchy, juicy, and intensely savoury chicken with a delectable aftertaste (not fishy at all!) and a gorgeous umami throughout the bite.
Image description: Prawn paste chicken (credits to the author)
To garnish, drizzling some lime on top of the chicken brightens the flavours and cuts through the headiness. If you’d like a spicy kick, you could make an easy garlic lime chilli. Chop up a few cloves of garlic and two small chillies very finely (add more chillies if you want it to be spicier, but be careful with them), and add it to a bowl. Stir in a squeeze of lime, a dash of sugar and chicken powder, and a few good squeezes of sriracha. A splash of hot water or hot chicken stock will make the overall texture saucier and mellows out the flavour of the raw garlic. As always, proportion each ingredient to your taste – if you like sour things, add more lime, et cetera.
Image description: Lime garlic chilli (credits to the author)
I couldn’t recommend this recipe enough – it’s incredibly easy and forgiving, it’s a wonderfully delicious medium through which to explore the funkiness of fermented shrimp paste, and as long as you clean up the inevitable oil splatter, your housemates or family will thank you for it.
Image credit: Natasha Tan