I love my mom. After a week away from the house, she does not for one second contemplate toast for dinner. She washes rice for the rice cooker, throws some frozen shrimp in a bowl of cold water, scavenges bits of onion, carrot and cabbage from the near-empty refrigerator. After a fragrant stir fry with garlic and dried chili peppers, a simple sauce made of soy sauce, vinegar and sugar, she serves up a tangy, spicy dish of kung pao shrimp, garnished with crunchy peanuts and feathery handfuls of cilantro freshly pulled from her garden.
When my mom cooks this dish with chicken, she marinates the chicken first for better flavor and, like restaurants do, flash-fries the meat in hot oil to seal in juiciness. With shrimp she skips both these steps, making kung pao shrimp the easy version I like to make.
It’s hard to find good shrimp these days. Shrimp farming has become a huge industry in Asia and Mexico, and crowded conditions result in overuse of antibiotics, pesticides and other chemicals used in processing. Wild-caught shrimp may taste better, but the environmental impact of indiscriminate ocean trawling is grim. Safest is shrimp from the United States, where regulations prohibit the carcinogenic chemicals used freely in foreign shrimp farms. Unfortunately the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico contaminated a major source of domestic shrimp.
Unless you are buying locally-caught shrimp, it’s best to buy frozen (shrimp sold “fresh” is more likely just thawed frozen shrimp). My mom has good results buying shrimp from Mexico and Vietnam, but she’s stopped buying shrimp from Thailand because it tastes like chemicals instead of the sea.
Frozen shrimp is a great ingredient to keep on hand – it defrosts so much faster than chicken. A few minutes in cold water is all it takes. Then drain.
You could leave the shrimp whole, but for stir fry it’s nice to have everything in bite-sized pieces. With really big shrimp like these (16-20 per pound), you can halve the shrimp lengthwise first. Otherwise just cut into bite-sized pieces.
Vegetables, too, in bite-sized pieces that will cook quickly. Sweet peppers are great, but you can also use thin diagonal-cut carrots and celery, or small-diced zucchini. A bit of onion is good, or scallions or shallots.
Just before cooking, a little cornstarch coating for the shrimp helps seal in juices during cooking.
It takes a little more time to cook the shrimp and vegetables separately, but each one cooks very quickly, and this way everything gets cooked just right.
Hot oil is very important for cooking the shrimp. You’ll need less oil if you use a wok or small pan – enough oil to look like a low puddle, not just wet pavement. Like an iron wok, a cast iron pan holds heat very well. This is a small one.
Gray to pink only takes a minute or two with these small pieces. They’ll be coming back to the pan one more time, so better to undercook a bit than overcook.
Onion starts the vegetables.
And the rest.
Now the fast finish: A little oil and heat to bring out the fragrance of garlic and dried hot peppers (break the peppers first for more heat). You can also use ginger if you have it – a slice to flavor the oil or minced for a stronger accent.
Pour in the sauce, just soy sauce, vinegar and a little sugar.
Right away everything goes back in. Shrimp.
During the week we were gone, the baby cilantro in my mom’s garden grew up. So she threw in a bunch at the end.
And just like that – dinner’s ready.
Mom likes to serve some peanuts as garnish and more on the side. They eventually get soggy in the dish, so adding them as needed keeps the crunchy effect.
I thought the kids might get spoiled living with my mom this year. But really it’s me. Thanks, Mama.
Kung Pao Shrimp
This is my mom’s fresh, simple recipe for kung pao shrimp. Shrimp defrosts faster than chicken and doesn’t need to marinate first.
- 1 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined
- 2 tablespoons cornstarch
- Cooking oil
- 1/4 cup chopped onion
- 1 1/4 cups vegetables, cut thin/small enough to cook quickly (eg diced green/red bell pepper or zucchini, thinly diagonal-sliced carrot or celery)
- 1 clove garlic, chopped
- 1 slice ginger, minced (optional)
- 2 dried red chili peppers
- 1/4 cup roasted peanuts, plus more for serving alongside
- Cilantro, for garnish (optional)
- 2 tablespoons soy sauce (Kikkoman or dark)
- 2 tablespoons white vinegar
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- 1 teaspoon cornstarch
- Prepare vegetables and set aside.
- Cut shrimp into bite-sized pieces (for very large shrimp, it can help to cut the shrimp lengthwise in half first). Toss shrimp with cornstarch.
- Heat a wok or small skillet on high. Add low pool of cooking oil (like a low puddle, not just wet pavement) and add shrimp. Stir shrimp as it cooks quickly from gray to white-pink. Remove shrimp to bowl and set aside.
- Place pan back on heat. Add a bit more cooking oil to pan if necessary. Add onion and cook until translucent. Add other vegetables and cook briefly until crisp-tender. Remove vegetables to bowl.
- In a small bowl, mix soy sauce, vinegar and sugar.
- Place pan on heat again and add a bit more oil. Add garlic, ginger (optional) and hot pepper (break in half if you want a spicier dish); heat briefly until aromatic. Add sauce and stir. Add back vegetables and shrimp and stir to distribute sauce evenly. If sauce needs thickening, mix 1 teaspoon cornstarch with 2 teaspoons water and add to pan, stirring until sauce thickens.
- Remove to plate and top with roasted peanuts and cilantro, if using. Serve hot, with steamed rice.
Serves 2 hungry people or 4 as part of a multicourse meal.
- If using chicken: marinate bite-size pieces in a tablespoon soy sauce and tablespoon sherry if you have it.
- Good shrimp that tastes of the sea, not chemicals, is hard to find these days. US shrimp is best if you can find it. My mom recommends frozen shrimp from Mexico and Vietnam over Thailand.
Here’s the link to a printable version.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.