I just got off the phone with an old friend, I had the privilege of catering her wedding dinner, the reception in her home 2 days later and then for several years an annual holiday get together. As a caterer, I looked forward to it because this was one of the few times I was given license to do most anything that I wanted. Not only that the pressure was off, they knew I would do a good job, I knew I could experiment a little and all would be good.
One of the things that I always had on the menu was coconut fried shrimp. By now it has become a well known dish/appetizer. Commercially there are even several wholesalers who produce their version of it which are by and large not so good. It begins with a good product. You need to carefully thaw the shrimp then peel, devein and butterfly it and finally bread it correctly and fry it all in the same day. That is why any commercially available coconut shrimp will be not so good. It has to be thawed when it is breaded, it was most likely frozen when they started so they thawed it and then after breading they refroze it. (Wow what a convoluted sentence that was) No matter how well they seasoned the breading the second freezing ruined the shrimp.
I need to take a second and talk about shrimp. As a western landlocked kid growing up I had never seen a live shrimp (unless you count the occasional crawdad that we caught near the creek side) until I made my first trip to California in my late teens (it was called Marine Corps boot-camp). When I returned to a kitchen environment 4 years later, shrimp was a seasonally available item. Fresh shrimp for most landlocked restaurants was just a fantasy that could be fulfilled in really high-end establishments. In fact it still is today, but don’t get me started, we have “fresh fish” wholesalers now but the product is still flown in by plane and usually 24 to 48 hours old when it gets here.
For my readers, I am sure that most of you are used to seeing shrimp on menus in every restaurant you visit, but that has not always been the case. In the 1950’s and 60’s the wholesalers would buy as large a lot as they could during the shrimping season and store it for their finer clientele. When the supplies started to dwindle in October the casual mom and pop style cafe would be told that they had to wait until the new shipment came in January. The bigger accounts would either buy it for their own storage or have an agreement for holding with the wholesaler. Clear into the mid 1970’s this was the case.
The varieties of wild caught shrimp available were from the coastal areas mainly the Carolina’s, Florida and the Gulf states and Mexico. There were some locales whose inland exports were more popular than others. For instance the white fleshed east coast varieties were more prized than the shrimp that came from the southern Caribbean which tended to be slightly brown and definitely harder to clean. Is there a difference in taste? You bet just ask anyone who is able to eat the fresh wild caught shrimp on a regular basis. Here is Chef Haley Bitterman’s take on the matter. “We definitely prefer the wild caught,” says Bitterman. “We are very spoiled living in south Louisiana to have access to such a great local wild product. I can’t remember the last time I have had anything other than wild-caught Gulf shrimp.” Hat Tip to Louisiana Sea Food News
By the Middle of the 1980’s that seasonal challenge cleared up due to the introduction of farm raised shrimp from the far east, mainly Taiwan through to India with Thailand being the largest producer. Wild shrimp were trapped in shallow ponds of “brackish” water. sea-water that is diluted by the fresh water coming out of the river mouth. The shrimp would feed on the algae from the pond, grow to the right size and be harvested. The shrimp markets of the west welcomed the addition and Thailand began converting several hectares of coastal and river land from rice paddies to shrimp production. Long story short, what began as an experiment turned into a huge industry for the Thailand entrepreneur. And since a picture says a thousand words, the picture below (from the PDF) shows the proliferation of shrimp farms on the Chow Phraya River Delta in Thailand. Other than the challenges they faced in getting their industry started and the ever present possibility of losing their crop to disease, south-east Asia is now supplying the world with over 200,000 tonnes (1 Tonne = 2240 lbs.) of farm raised shrimp.
Shrimp comes in numerous sizes in the commercial market. It is generally ordered according to the average number of shrimp per pound and the size of the shrimp gets smaller as the number goes up. U-15 or a smaller number means a big shrimp while 16-20 count will average about an ounce and then they get smaller, 20-25,25-35,35-45, and on up from there, of course when you get to 100 count you are having difficulty seeing them. The most common size in the US is the 16-20 count.
My version of Coconut Fried Shrimp came from the Royal Hawaiian Hotel when I had an opportunity to work with a visiting chef who shared his recipe. I have long since forgotten his name, but I am grateful for his sharing. Rather than a batter, I use a simple flour, egg and then seasoned coconut to coat the shrimp. I dislike batter because it adds a floury texture that detracts from the coconut/shrimp flavor. It is simple but effective, coat the shrimp in flour put it in a screen sieve shake of the excess flour, dip it in the egg, and then press it into the shredded coconut. You can season the coconut with red pepper flake and parsley or not depending on your taste. Make sure that you thoroughly coat the shrimp in coconut then set it aside on a papered sheet pan.
For a dipping sauce a papaya mango chutney is fantastic. You can make your own chutney or simply buy a “Major Grey’s” off the shelf from your local super market. If you can find a ripe papaya use that or a bottled ripe papaya and combine it in a food processor with the chutney and blend until it is smooth, not lumpy. Almost any fruit salsa will work as well, remember your guests will be dipping into the sauce so make sure that it is smooth rather than chunky = less coconut knocked off the shrimp while dipping.
The secret to success with coconut shrimp is simply cooking it from raw to finished and serving it two minutes later. Not cooking it 3 hours ago and reheating it in the oven, but as the guests are hovering about the chaffing dish. Guaranteed, you will get rave results!