Foodstuff is a freelance food writer who has been exploring the art of fermentation. Traditional Chinese preserves is her latest project.
"Oooh! I can taste prawns! " is the pleasantly surprised reaction from anyone who tastes homemade prawn crackers for the first time. Unlike commercial prawn crackers—where the cost of prawns combined with profit imperative results in there being little, if any, of the crustacean present in the product—homemade versions will have upwards of 50% real prawns in them. Added bonuses are that there are no preservatives, colouring agents or other artificial additives.
Making prawn crackers is really easy. The only special equipment you will need if is a dehydrator. The crackers can be sun-dried but you'll need to watch out for 'local wildlife' such as cats etc from sampling your wares.
Homemade prawn crackers reflect the individual flavour characteristics of the type of prawns used. I've run a horizontal taste test of prawn crackers made with different types of prawns. Result? The most magnificent (and expensive!) crackers are from wild-caught King prawns. Farmed prawns tend to produce a much milder prawn flavour. However, all are far superior to any commercial product.
You can also experiment with other types of seafood such as scallops, fish or for the ultimate indulgence, lobster or crayfish!
The recipe should be looked at as a guideline for ingredient ratios. The aim is to try to keep the ratio of prawn meat to tapioca starch at 1:1 or less (i.e. more prawn than tapioca starch).
- 1 kilogram whole prawns to yield 500 grams of prawn meat after deheading and shelling
- 500 grams tapioca starch (100 grams for making paste and an additional 400 grams for making dough)
- 200 millilitres prawn stock (made from heads and shells)
- 3 to 4 teaspoons salt, or to taste
- Ground white pepper
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
Step 1: Prepare Prawn Stock
Remove heads and shells from prawns. Using a small sharp knife, de-vein the prawns by making a slit along the back of each prawn and removing the intestinal tract. Dry the prawn meat with kitchen paper and set aside.
Place the heads and shells into a large pot with enough water to barely cover.
Bring to the boil and cook, uncovered, until the liquid is reduced to approximately 300 millilitres. The reduced volume of liquid doesn't have to be precise at this stage; the aim is to get as much flavour out of the heads and shells as possible and achieve a concentrated prawn stock.
Step 2: Make Prawn Starch Paste
This is akin to the sourdough starter in bread making.
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Strain the heads and shells from the prawn stock and measure the amount of stock. Weigh the prawn meat. For every 500 grams of prawn meat, you require 200 millilitres of liquid. If the stock is greater than 200 mL, boil it down to 200 mL. If you have only 425 g prawn meat, boil the stock down to 170 mL. The arithmetic for the ratio calculation is as follows:
425 ÷ 500 = 0.85 or 85% of the base reference weight of 500 g
Therefore, you only need 85% of the 200 mL liquid that applies for 500 g prawn meat. 85% of 200 mL is 170 mL.
Weigh out 100 grams of tapioca starch for 500 grams prawn meat. Again, if you have less prawn meat, use proportionately less. Sift the starch into a small bowl.
Gradually add boiling hot prawn stock to the starch to make a sticky paste. If your stock is very dense, it will be more like a dough ball as illustrated in this picture.
Step 3: Prepare the Prawn Meat Paste
In a food processor fitted with a steel blade, blend the prawn meat together with salt and pepper to a fine paste.
Add the tapioca starch paste that you have made in the previous step and blend until the mixture is well combined and homogenous.
Step 4: Make the Dough
Sift 400 grams tapioca starch with 2 teaspoons baking powder in a large bowl. Transfer the prawn paste to a separate large bowl.
Gradually work the sifted starch into the prawn paste until you get a malleable dough. You don't want the dough to be too dry; add only enough starch to take the dough to a state where it can be easily handled and formed into rolls.
Depending on how damp the prawn paste is (which depends on how well you dried off the prawns and the stickiness of your tapioca starch paste), you may not need all 400 grams of tapioca starch. And that's a good thing, as it means you will have a very high prawn content in your crackers!
Step 5: Form Dough Into Rolls, Then Steam
Form the dough into cylindrical rolls of between 3 to 5 centimetres in diameter. You can do this "free hand". What I do to get evenly shaped cylinders is to roll the dough using a sushi mat lined with cling film.
Lightly grease the base of steamer trays or line them with damp muslin. You can use large bamboo steamers similar to the ones you see at dim sum places but they retain the smell of prawns afterward. However, as they are relatively cheap, you can just throw them out after each use. Don't put the rolls on plates to steam as water will collect on the plate and turn your dough into a soggy mess.
Make sure the rolls are spaced well apart as they will double in size during steaming.
Steam the rolls over rapidly boiling water for about 45 minutes to 1 hour, depending on the diameter of your rolls. If your steaming vessel doesn't have a vented lid, either leave the lid slightly ajar to allow steam to escape or drape damp muslin or tea-towel over the rolls to stop condensation whilst they are cooking.
Step 6: Slice the Rolls to Form Crackers
Place the cooked rolls on a wire rack to cool completely. Wrap each roll with cling film and refrigerate overnight. This allows the rolls to firm up for easy slicing.
Using a sharp serrated knife, slice the rolls into slices of around 1 mm thickness.
Step 7: Dry The Prawn Cracker Slices
It is important the crackers are thoroughly dried and very hard. They will not puff up properly on frying if there is moisture present.
Prawn crackers are traditionally sun-dried, a process that takes several days and good weather on your side. Drying overnight in a dehydrator is the most efficient way but in the absence of a dehydrator, leave them on wire racks in a dry airy place (a sunny spot is ideal but not essential) for at least 24 hours until quite well-dried out and then complete the drying in a very low oven for several hours.
To dry the crackers in a dehydrator, spread the slices in single layers on the food dehydrator trays. Set the dehydrator at the lowest setting (35ºC) and dry the slices for at least 18 hours.
When they are completely dry and hard, store them in an air-tight container in a cool dry place until required. I keep mine in the refrigerator.
Step 8: Fry Prawn Crackers
Deep fry the crackers in very hot oil. As they will puff up within seconds of being placed in the oil, fry only 4–5 crackers at a time so that you can remove them very quickly. Drain the cooked crackers on kitchen paper.
They can be served immediately or stored in a large air-tight jar (you'll find the jar empties very quickly!). Enjoy!
Questions & Answers
Question: Can you add shrimp paste to prawn shell reduction for better colour?
Answer: By shrimp paste, I assume you mean belachan which is dark brown in colour. If you do that, you will alter the the flavour of the prawn crackers. In addition, it will make the crackers brown instead of that lovely rich shade of pink that prawn shells provide. If you feel that brown is a "better colour" and you are happy to have the very distinct aroma and flavour of prawn paste (i.e. belachan), go ahead. But frankly, I would not do that.
Question: Can the prawn crackers be white ?
Answer: They shouldn't be if you are using prawns and prawn stock. However, they would be white if you made fish crackers or squid crackers.
Question: I just had some flavorless 'prawn crackers' from a packet, which is why I looked for an authentic recipe. I have a dehydrator. Once I've dried my prawn crackers, how long can I store them in a jar?
Answer: You can store them pretty much indefinitely as long as your jar is airtight and left in a cool place. I keep mine in the refrigerator.
© 2011 Foodstuff