Here’s the perfect recipe for making zi char style fried 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? In fact, I find it very hard to resist this local dish of fried prawn paste chicken that we call har cheong gai in the Cantonese dialect.
We love to celebrate a festive occasion with a dish of prawn paste chicken, because it’s everybody’s favourite. No hesitation with hands and chopsticks reaching out to grab their favourite fried piece!
Now, I realise that there will always be some of us who don’t want too much fried food in our diet. The first glimpse of anything with a shiny, oily sheen might be all it takes to make you think twice about eating.
But there are those of us who seek out fried finger foods like bees to honey, when hit with wafts and whiffs of smoky, aromatic foods bubbling in hot oil.
I’m definitely and unashamedly in the latter camp. But I’d like to think that many of us, even the health conscious, for the most part, can’t help but indulge ourselves once in a while.
I just can’t deny myself the pure enjoyment of sinking my teeth into a deliciously flavoured, crispy battered chicken wing!
What is prawn paste?
Now, if you’ve never heard of prawn paste before or are unfamiliar with this condiment, you really should start exploring cooking with it.
It is used widely in many regional cuisines, mainly that of Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Thailand, and the Philippines.
Sometimes labelled as shrimp sauce, prawn paste is a fine and delicate paste made from fermented and dried silver shrimp.
Prawn paste has a very distinct and pungent, aroma. We add it in modest portions or dollops to seasonings and marinades for meats and seafood, as well as to flavour stir-fries and braising sauces.
Prawn paste versus belacan
Prawn paste or shrimp sauce is not to be confused with another kind of shrimp paste, belacan (in Malay).
Even though both prawn paste and belacan are made from fermented shrimps, each differs in flavour, texture, consistency and uses in cooking.
Belacan paste is sun-dried and cut into fist-sized, solid, rectangular blocks. More often, it is added to spice pastes for cooking Asian curries. It’s also the essential ingredient in local signature stir-fries like kangkong belacan, as well as sambal.
The prawn paste I use here for cooking prawn paste chicken is more like a thick marinade or sauce.
Which brand of prawn paste should I use?
In Singapore, you can get various brands of prawn pastes sold in supermarkets as well as at the local wet markets here.
Some are said to have more robust and sophisticated flavour profiles. It’s easy to see how these can make the difference when you’re cooking a dish like prawn paste chicken.
I use the popular Lee Kum Kee brand of fine shrimp sauce as they are conveniently found in supermarkets here.
Personally, I’ve used other brands as well and most turn out good flavours for the prawn paste chicken recipes I’ve tried.
This is a tried and tested recipe for prawn paste chicken
I’m sharing one of my favourites on zi char style prawn paste chicken. It was originally written by Dr. Leslie Tay on his blog ieatishootipost. Highly regarded and well respected, Dr. Tay is an accomplished author, food enthusiast and blogger on the local food scene in Singapore.
He writes a very detailed and informative post on aspects of the recipe. It also includes tips and techniques for deep frying, and how to get that highly sought-after crispy wings which is definitely worth reading here.
Ingredients for prawn paste chicken
Here are the ingredients you will need to create restaurant-quality, tze-char style prawn paste chicken:
- chicken drumettes and wingettes. You can also use chicken parts of your choice, like chicken thighs and drumsticks.
- Prawn paste or shrimp sauce
- Sesame oil
- Chinese wine
- Plain flour
- Potato starch or corn flour or crispy flour
- Baking soda
- Baking powder
- Seasonings (sugar, pepper, MSG – I omit this entirely)
How to make the prawn paste batter
Prawn paste, when mixed with Chinese wine, sesame oil and seasonings, makes a robust, full-bodied marinade. Here’s how to make the batter:
- Step 1: In a mixing bowl, combine prawn paste (shrimp sauce), sugar, sesame oil, wine and pepper. Stir with a whisk or spoon to mix well.
- Step 2: Add the chicken wings. Mix until pieces are coated evenly with the prawn paste marinade.
- Step 3: In a separate bowl, mix together the dry ingredients – flour, potato starch (or corn flour), baking soda and baking powder. Stir to mix well together. Then add the wet ingredients – egg and water.
- Step 4: Stir with a whisk until the batter is smooth and free of lumps.
- Step 5: Pour the batter into the marinade-coated chicken.
- Step 6: Mix thoroughly. Cover with cling wrap, and refrigerate for at least 8 hours, preferably overnight or for up to 2 days.
How to fry the prawn paste chicken
1. Thaw batter-coated chicken to room temperature
It’s really important that the batter-coated chicken is at room temperature before frying. Remove the chicken from the chiller at least 30 to 45 mins before frying, to let it come to room temperature.
2. Heat the oil to the right temperature range
The optimal temperature range for deep frying chicken is between 175 – 180°C (347 – 356°F). If the temperature is not hot enough, the battered chicken pieces will absorb more oil and end up soggy and greasy.
This is also why the meat should be at room temperature before placing into the oil. It helps the oil stay around the optimal temperature range.
On the other hand, frying in oil that’s too hot will brown the batter too quickly before the chicken is cooked.
3. Make sure there is enough oil in the wok
Pour enough oil in the wok or skillet, until at least 1- 1 1/2 inch deep. A good gauge is that the oil should come at least halfway up the chicken pieces.
4. Fry in batches, don’t overcrowd
Overcrowding the wok or skillet will lower the oil temperature. This can also cause more oil to be absorbed resulting in soggy, greasy chicken.
Fry in batches, giving the chicken pieces ample room to cook evenly. It’s a good idea to fry like pieces together.
After about 30 seconds, separate the pieces with wooden chopsticks to prevent them from sticking to each other. The temperature should have dropped to around 160 deg C. If you find the chicken browning too quickly, reduce the heat a little.
Each batch takes about 4 to 5 minutes to cook until golden brown. Before you add the next batch of batter- coated pieces, be sure to let the oil to heat up again to the optimal temperature.
5. Cool on a metal rack
When the chicken pieces are a deep golden brown, remove them to a wire cooling rack set over a plate to catch the drips. Do not drain on paper towels.
Now, I find this step really important because it makes all the difference if you want the fried prawn paste chicken to stay crispy for longer. Because when the pieces are just removed from hot oil, steam is actually still continuing to build up in the meat.
All this hot steam needs to escape. Placing on paper towels would in effect cause steam to be re-absorbed back into the batter, causing it to lose its fried crispness. And you’ll end up with soggy wings, which isn’t nice.
1. Prawn paste or shrimp sauce is salty so adjust the amount of sugar if needed.
Depending on the brand of prawn paste you have, you might need to adjust the sugar amount to offset the saltiness. For instance, I add about 1 to 2 additional teaspoons of sugar when I cook with Lee Kum Kee shrimp sauce.
2. Texture of batter
I love the texture of this prawn paste batter! When you’re mixing the batter, it should be smooth and velvety.
You’ll find that this batter has just the right consistency to coat the pieces thickly and evenly. When fried, the batter clings to the chicken pieces and cooks to a tender crisp.
3. Flours and substitutions
I do not recommend substituting the flours and their proportions in the batter with other types of flour, unless suggested. That’s because we’re after a crispy and crunchy fried batter. So it’s really important for the batter to be at the right consistency.
However, I do realise that we sometimes might not have all the various types of flours on hand. Depending on what you have in your pantry, it is also possible to substitute all potato starch with all corn flour. I’ve tried this and it works out fairly well too, though just not as crispy.
Hope this has been helpful! I’ll definitely be experimenting with more recipes like this in future. For now, this is my go-to recipe and as close as I can get to ‘zi char’ style prawn paste chicken!
Here are more recipes to inspire your next meal:
- Cantonese-Style Stir-Fried Prawns in Sauce (Har Lok)
- Butter Cereal Prawns
- Chicken Curry
- Assam Pork Curry (Tamarind Pork Curry)
- Chicken in Spicy Tomato Sauce (Ayam Masak Merah)