Sikpou Saturdays 1: 姜蔥蝦 Jiang Cong Xia (Sautéed Shrimp with Spring Onions and Ginger)

I love me a bit of alliteration, but since there isn’t a day of the week that starts with R – what kind of lexical laxness is this, English language? – I shall have to use a Cantonese word to stand in for recipe instead.

Actually, come think of it, sikpou – or 食譜 shi pu – is a much more poetic thing to call a recipe than ‘recipe’. After all, recipe literally is an order to ‘take’ (or receive), and used to mean a prescription – as if food is merely something you take to keep alive, as with the horrible ‘food is fuel’ mantra. (Food is fuel? I suppose any intellectual nourishment is just so much lubricant, and you need to stick a gauge down your throat to figure if you need to drink water? Seriously.)

Sikpou, on the other hand, literally mean ‘a script or score for food’, since the character 譜 is also used in music to mean a score or manuscript. Now that’s a lot closer to the heart of what a recipe is. A manuscript you can consult every time you perform an act of artistic generosity that warms the heart and fills the stomach.

Sautéed Shrimp with Ginger and Spring Onions

My mum has the hardest job there is, homemaking, and this dish is one of her most potent tools. That also makes it one of the great pleasures of my childhood. The slight pungency and sweetness of spring onions, and the clean, subtle heat of the ginger, takes just a minute to bring out in a hot skillet, wafting aromas through the house.

Naturally it was one of the first dishes I tried to replicate since setting up in London, and after some years I think I have it mostly right now. (I suspect getting homemade dishes completely right is something only mothers can do.) One great thing about this dish – something that’s quite true of many Chinese dishes, I find – is that its spirit lies in the seasoning; you can whip up the sauce and add any source of protein that’s close at hand. At home, we have the luxury of thinly sliced lean pork loin; in London I mostly use chicken breast, but this time it’s prawns. Vegetarians could always substitute sliced firm tofu, which would approximate the mouthfeel and soak up the flavour properly as well.

This dish is also a standard in most Chinese restaurants, and the more deluxe types even use sliced venison (‘venison’, in any case), served sizzling on a hot plate. I shan’t presume to say how posh a dish should be, of course.


Ingredients

Serves: 3 of the peckish; 2 of the ravenous

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Stir-fry:

– 6 sprigs of spring onion, chopped into 3 cm lengths

Remember to separate the root ends (whites) from the greens

– 3 tomatoes, cut into wedges

– 4 to 5 cloves of garlic, diced

– 5 to 6 slices of ginger

– 150 g shrimp, preferably shelled

– Oil at discretion

Marinade for the shrimp:

– 4 tablespoons Shaoxing rice liquor or sherry

– 1 teaspoon sugar (omit if using sherry)

– 3 tablespoons flour or cornstarch

– 1 teaspoon oyster sauce

– 1/2 teaspoon dark soy sauce (optional, mainly for colour)

Flavour shot:

– 3 tablespoons Shaoxing or sherry

– 1 tablespoon dark soy sauce

– 1 tablespoon oyster sauce

– Water this down at discretion (if you like gravy, which I do, add 3 tablespoons water)

Marination

1. Simple stuff – add all the marinade ingredients together, then add the shrimp and mix thoroughly. Leave either an hour in the fridge, or just let the ingredients sit and socialise while you cut up your veg.

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Cooking

1. You have to get the frying pan or skillet hot first, so turn the heat up and leave the pan on for a bit. When you can feel heat emanating off the pan with your hand 10 cm above it (no closer, for goodness’ sake), put in the oil.

2. Add the garlic, ginger and the spring onion whites to the oil, and start stirring. They should start sizzling pretty quickly. Fry until you can smell the aroma.

3. Throw in the tomatoes, and stir just as before. They should start losing their shape pretty quickly, which is the intention.

4. Turn the heat down a little, then throw in the shrimp and the spring onion greens. Continue stirring; it’s a stir-fry after all.

5. Once the shrimp start going white and pale pink, and the spring onions start to wilt (no later or everything gets overcooked), take the pan off the heat, throw in the flavour shot, and cover the pan. Let it sit and grumble for a minute. The residual heat and steam will finish the shrimp off nicely.

6. You’re ready to serve! Rice is good; noodles are good too. Haven’t tried this with chips… yet.

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