It's time for some #realtalk. Come autumn, food puts on its prettiest clothes. Rainbow-colored heirloom tomatoes, verdant greens, and crayon-toned squash all compete for the beauty crown with the ruthless determination. And in general, all that beauty delivers on its promise of vibrant flavor.
But I'm going to ask you to set all that aside for a second, to contemplate the joys of eating humble, no-account shrimp shells instead.
Yes, shrimp shells are not glamorous. They aren't particularly appetizing. You could even argue that they aren't even food. But I am here to assure you that under certain circumstances, they are shockingly delicious, with a treasure trove of flavor and texture that naked unshelled shrimp can't even match. And if you're tossing them away, you're missing out.
Here's what you need to know about how to live that shrimp-shell lifestyle:
Wait, you can't really digest shrimp shells, can you?
I'm here to assure you that you can—provided they're lightly coated with cornstarch and salt and deep-fried. If they're crispy, you can crunch through them, and that extra-crunchy layer is prized across countries like Japan and China, places that know how to handle their shrimp. All you need to do is use kitchen shears to slice into the backs of the shrimp to remove that pesky "vein," along with the two especially long antennae (ok, did I just squick you out?) on the heads, and you're in business.
And that's pretty much it. Fry them, toss them with a few delicious seasonings like cilantro and Sichuan peppercorn, and for God's sake, please eat them with your hands.
Hold on. Aren't those shrimp heads usually thrown away before I buy them?
Well, yes. Head-off, shell-on, tail-on shrimp are what you usually see in the frozen seafood section of the grocery store. But if you're ready for the next chapter in your journey, head over to the fish counter and buy those shell-on shrimp head-on instead. You don't need to eat the heads to appreciate them: think of shrimp heads as the lid of a pot, holding all the juiciness and flavor of the shrimp inside until you're ready to dive in.
Then, when you're ready to eat, just give the heads a twist (and if you want to slurp the delicious juices within, no one's going to stop you).
Can't I at least throw out the shells from boiled shrimp?
Of course, if you're a shrimp lover, you've probably already peeled your fair share of shrimp at shrimp boils and the like. And that pile of discarded shrimp shells might seem like nothing but fodder for the compost heap. But throw those self-same shells into your next pot of stock, and they'll enrich the broth with even more umami. Or cut to the chase and make an even faster stock just with the shrimp shells themselves. One way or another, those shells deserve to get eaten.