Here’s the perfect recipe for making zi char style crispy prawn paste chicken (har cheong gai 虾酱鸡). Enjoy sinking your teeth into these deliciously flavoured, crispy, battered, deep-fried chicken wings.
Seriously, who doesn’t enjoy the occasional meal of deep-fried chicken? Granted, there will always be people on both sides of the fence, who will either cringe or grimace at first glimpse of anything with a shiny, oily sheen to it, or seek out the source, like bees to honey, when hit with wafts and whiffs of smoky, aromatic foods bubbling in hot oil in a deep fryer somewhere.
I’m in the latter camp. But I’d like to think that many of us, even the health conscious, for the most part, do indulge ourselves, and enjoy sinking our teeth into a deliciously flavoured, crispy battered piece of chicken.
Like this much loved Singaporean dish, deep-fried prawn paste chicken (har cheong gai).
This, for days when only fried chicken will do.
If you are unfamiliar with prawn paste (also often referred to as shrimp paste or shrimp sauce), this is a fine, delicate, light lilac-coloured paste made from fermented and dried silver shrimp, used widely in many regional cuisines, mainly that of Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Thailand, and the Philippines. It has a very distinct, most will say, very pungent, aroma. Prawn paste is often added in modest portions or dollops to seasonings and marinades for meats and seafood, as well as to flavour stir-fries and braising sauces.
DO YOU KNOW? Prawn or shrimp paste is not to be confused with another kind of shrimp paste, belacan (in Malay). Belacan is also made from fermented shrimps, which are sun-dried, and cut into fist-sized, solid, rectangular blocks, and often used when cooking curries and sauces.
In Singapore, there are those who favour specific brands of prawn pastes, often sold at your local wet markets, as these are said to have much more intense flavours. And then, there’s the popular fine shrimp sauce made by Lee Kum Kee, which I tend to grab more of, as they are conveniently found in most supermarkets here. Personally, I’ve used both varieties, and both work very well for the prawn paste chicken recipes I’ve tried.
The recipe I’m sharing here is one of my favourites on zi char style prawn paste chicken, posted on ieatishootipost.sg (Dr Leslie Tay writes a very detailed and informative post, not only on aspects of the recipe, but also tips and techniques for deep frying to get that highly-sought after crispy wings, which I think is definitely worth reading here).
Prawn paste, when mixed with Chinese wine, sesame oil and seasonings, makes a robust, full-bodied marinade (Just a note: I did have to add about 1 to 2 additional teaspoons of sugar to balance the saltiness of the prawn paste, so adjust accordingly to your tolerance for saltiness). The batter is smooth, velvety, of the right consistency, coating the pieces evenly, and fries to a tender crisp. Depending on what’s available in my pantry, I’ve substituted all potato starch with all corn flour, or half-and-half corn flour with crispy flour. I’ve found that using crispy flour makes a crispier batter, and wings stay crisp for longer, but if you can’t get your hands on crispy flour, corn flour will do just fine too.
I’ll definitely be experimenting with more recipes like this in future – for now, this is my go-to recipe, and is truly as close as it gets to ‘zi char’ style prawn paste chicken!
- 1 kg chicken drumettes and wingettes
- 3 tbsp shrimp sauce
- 2 - 3 tsp sugar
- 2 tbsp sesame oil
- 3 tbsp Chinese wine
- 1 tsp white pepper
- 2 tsp MSG (optional) (I omit this entirely)
- 80 g plain flour
- 80 g potato starch or corn flour
- 100 ml water
- 1 egg
- 1/4 tsp bicarbonate of soda
- 1/4 tsp baking powder
In a mixing bowl, combine shrimp sauce, sugar, sesame oil, wine, and pepper. Add chicken pieces and mix till well coated with marinade.
In a separate bowl, mix all the batter ingredients, and stir with a spoon or whisk, until smooth and free of lumps. Add this to the chicken in marinade, and stir until well combined. Cover with clingwrap, and set aside (refrigerated) for at least 8 hours, preferably overnight, or up to 2 days.
Fill a wok or frying pot (with a wide surface area), one-third full with cooking oil. Heat oil to 180 deg C. Fry the chicken pieces in batches, about 4 to 5 at a time (it's a good idea to fry like pieces together). After about half a minute, separate the pieces with wooden chopsticks, to prevent pieces sticking together. After about 1 minute, the temperature should have dropped to 160 deg C, if not lower the heat. Cook for about 4 minutes, or until golden brown. Scoop out with a slotted spoon, and drain on paper towels. Repeat, until all pieces have been fried. Serve immediately, with freshly squeezed lime or calamansi juice, and sweet chilli sauce, on the side (optional).