The chefs of Hunan are fond of hot oils, and use them skillfully. Hot oils and hot peppers not only provide heat, but also season, balance, and complement, which are the criteria I stress when teaching this dish. These spicy-hot ingredients are particularly common in western China because many preparations are preserved, and hot pepper and oils can mask the taste that comes with preservation. The pepper flakes used to make the hot oils are even more intensely flavored than the oils.

1 pound large shrimp (40 count per pound)

Shrimp Coating

2 tablespoons lightly beaten egg whites

2 tablespoons peanut oil

2 tablespoons Shaoxing wine

1 tablespoon mung bean starch

1 teaspoon sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

Pinch of white pepper


5 tablespoons ketchup (see Note below)

1 tablespoon oyster sauce

2 teaspoons white rice vinegar

2 teaspoons light soy sauce

1 1/2 teaspoons pepper flakes from Hot Pepper Oil (recipe follows)

1 1/2 teaspoons sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup peanut oil

1 tablespoon peeled and of minced ginger

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1/2 cup 1/4-inch-dice shallots

1 1/2 tablespoons Shaoxing wine

Peel the shrimp, leaving the tail segments intact, then devein and clean them.

To make the shrimp coating: In a bowl, mix together all of the ingredients. Add the shrimp and turn to coat. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.

To make the sauce: In a small bowl, mix together all of the ingredients and reserve.

Heat a wok over high heat for 30 seconds. Add the peanut oil, and, using a spatula, coat the wok with the oil. When a wisp of white smoke appears, add the ginger and stir briefly. Add the garlic and stir briefly. Add the shallots, stir to mix, and lower the heat to medium. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes, or until the shallots soften. Raise the heat to high, add the shrimp and their coating, and stir to mix. Spread the shrimp in a single layer and cook for 1 minute, or until the shrimp begin to turn pink. Turn the shrimp over and mix.

Drizzle in the wine, adding it along the edge of the wok, and mix well. Stir the sauce, pour it over the shrimp, and mix well. Stir-fry for about 1 1/2 minutes, or until the shrimp are well-coated and the sauce begins to bubble.

Turn off the heat, transfer to a heated dish, and serve.

Makes 4 to 6 servings


Ketchup in China.

Once a common import stocked on Asian market shelves in the United States, and now found only on occasion, Chinese ketchup is made from tomatoes, vinegar, and spices, like its popular Western counterpart. Its use differs, however. In China, ketchup is used as a coloring agent, and nowadays some cooks even use tomato paste in its place. Look for Koon Yick Wan Kee brand ketchup, made in Hong Kong.

Some food scholars believe that ketchup originated in China. In southern China, on the island once known as Amoy and today called Xiamen, cooks use a flavoring mixture of fish essence and soy sauce they call keh chap, that could be, as has been suggested, a precursor. It is a piquant thought.

Hot Pepper Oil

1/2 cup hot pepper flakes

1/3 cup sesame oil

1/2 cup peanut oil

For this infused oil to be a success, the pepper flakes must be very hot, which is why I specify dried Thai chilies for making the flakes (see below). Heat a wok over high heat for 20 seconds. Add the sesame oil, peanut oil, and pepper flakes and stir. Reduce the heat to medium and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, or until the oil is very hot, but not boiling.

Turn off the heat and let cool to room temperature. Pour the oil, including the pepper flakes, into a sterilized glass jar and close tightly. Allow the oil to rest for 10 minutes and then it can be used. The oil will keep at room temperature for up to 1 week or refrigerated for up to 3 months. The longer the oil is stored, the hotter it will become.

Makes about 1 cup oil and pepper flakes

How to Make Hot Pepper Flakes

Look for dried Thai chilies, sold in 4-ounce packages (about 3 cups before grinding), or dry your own chilies. Place the dried chilies in a food processor and pulse for 1 to 1 1/2 minutes, or until ground into coarse flakes. You should have about 1 1/2 cups flakes. Store in a tightly closed jar in a cool, dark place. They will retain their strength for at least 6 months.