I am of the firm belief that there are two types of people in the world: those who can eat shrimp with the head on and those who are terrified of the very thought. I belong squarely in the former camp, as most kids who grew up in Asia are, but I don't judge those on the other side. In fact, sometimes I question whether there's something wrong with me for not being more disturbed by those beady little eyes. How can I look into those eyes and then ever-so calmly rip off the head from which they protrude and proceed to suck the flavor from their brain cavity? Am I a sociopath? Shrimp really have a way of getting you to look inward...
The shrimp-eating ritual I described above may sound ghastly to some, and it's OK if you never dare to embrace this culture clash of an dining method, but you'll have to believe me nonetheless that it truly is the best way to eat shrimp. The shells are packed with flavor, both intrinsically and as a vehicle for sauces, seasonings, glazes, etc., with most of the sweet, briny flavor concentrated in the shrimp head. In some cultures, you'll be met with bewildered looks for not sucking out the shrimp head. That's because they contain the shrimp's hepatopancreas, a digestive organ that is similar to the delicious, yolky tomalley found in crabs and lobsters. Do note, however, that it is best to discard the head and body shells after eating the flavor off of them, lest you get an extra crunchy and scratchy experience in your throat (sometimes I get lazy and eat the whole thing, but it's not recommended).
When cooking the whole shrimp with the shell intact, it's always best to go really bold in flavor. I found this recipe on Bon Appétit and tweaked it a little because I was out of limes (we were busy making micheladas the night before). In place of limes, I used passion fruit juice, which is one of my absolute favorite flavors in the world (it's tangy! it's sweet! it's passion fruit!), and forewent the sugar since the juice had plenty of sweetness. Instead of long red chiles, I used red and green Thai chiles, which may look small and cute but pack a lot of heat. Lastly, since I unfortunately do not own a grill (yet), I used a cast-iron pan instead because you just can't go wrong with cast iron.
In the spirit of nose-to-tail eating, a culinary movement that respects the animal being eaten (however small) by not wasting even an inch of it, I ask those of you who have never eaten shell-on shrimp to keep a open mind and try this recipe. Sure, it takes a bit more work to tear off the head and then the body before reaching the soft, plump meat, but the best things on earth are worth a little labor. Recipe below.
16 jumbo shrimp, unpeeled and head-on
6 tablespoons. fish sauce (such as nuoc nam or nam pla), divided
4 tablespoons vegetable oil, plus more for pan
2 teaspoon turmeric
30 cilantro sprigs, chopped
1 red Thai chile, stemmed and deseeded
1 green Thai chile, stemmed and deseeded
2 garlic cloves
2 1" pieces ginger, peeled
1/4 cup passion fruit juice
1 teaspoon palm sugar or light brown sugar
- Mix 2 Tbsp. fish sauce, 2 Tbsp. oil, and turmeric in a large bowl until well combined and add the shrimp. Toss to coat and let stand for 30 minutes.
- Add 4 Tbsp. fish sauce, 2 Tbsp. oil, chopped cilantro, and remaining ingredients in a blender or food processor and purée until a coarse sauce forms. Pour into a small dipping or sauce bowl.
- Heat a cast-iron skillet on high heat for 2 minutes. Add enough vegetable oil to almost coat the bottom and add the shrimp. Cook until the shrimp are pink, about 3 to 4 minutes on each side.
- Serve the shrimp in the skillet with the spicy cilantro sauce on the side. When plating, arrange 2 to 4 shrimp on a plate and drizzle with the sauce.
Adapted from Bon Appétit.