Crispy and crunchy on the outside, soft and juicy on the inside, these Szechuan Salt and Pepper Shrimp (Asian salt and pepper prawns) are packed with flavor, and a little kick from the szechuan pepper salt mix and crushed chili flakes/red pepper. So easy to make and always a favorite!
This Szechuan Salt and Pepper Shrimp recipe is a slight twist on the classic, ever-popular salt and pepper shrimp (or salt and pepper prawns as we call them in Australia and NZ). Salty, spicy, zesty shrimp fried to crispy perfection with the shell (AND the head!), and dusted with a spicy roasted szechuan salt! 🙂 It’s no wonder why this dish is so popular.
About szechan (sichuan) peppercorn
Salt and pepper shrimp is nothing new to me as I grew up eating this dish in its numerous variants. BUT, using szechuan peppercorn in my cooking is certainly new. Szechuan pepper has a flavor unlike no other. It’s a spice that’s extremely popular in a lot of Asian cuisine, but it’s also a little on the pricey side due to its distinction. Plus, the authentic version is somewhat hard to find, and cheaper, poor-quality impersonators are everywhere.
I was exposed to sub-par szechuan peppercorn for a long time, and as a result did not particularly enjoy using it in my cooking. But I was fortunate enough to get my hands on the real deal recently, and went right ahead and used it generously that first time – BIG mistake! We ended up numbing all our taste buds and palate and lips, and pretty much our whole face!
So what did I do? I turned to this gorgeous lady who knows Chinese cuisine inside and out – Maggie from Omnivores cookbook. She introduced me to a few beginner recipes that helped me understand how to cook with szechuan peppercorn well, and I haven’t looked back. You HAVE to check out her chili oil recipe here to see what I’m talking about. A little szechuan peppercorn, goes a very long way if you’re using authentic szechuan pepper and elevates any dish with an exciting spicy, floral flavor with a pleasant and surprising numbing sensation.
For this Szechuan salt and pepper shrimp recipe, I made a roasted szechuan pepper salt. This is a very versatile salt, but you have to be sure to balance the flavor of szechuan pepper to salt, so that the peppercorn doesn’t overwhelm you. Make sure to read the notes that I’ve included in this recipe to decide what kind of szechuan pepper to salt ratio you’d like to go with for your salt. I use this roasted salt in everything from stir fries to even simple syrup, because this salt makes for one really interesting margarita! 🙂 If you like it spicy – then go with a 1:1 ratio of salt to peppercorns, if not I would recommend a 2:1 ratio. If you prefer something in between – then go with a 4:3 ratio.
About the Shrimp
Shrimp (prawns) are one of my favorite types of seafood to eat. I didn’t like fish as a kid (it’s a different story now!), but loved shrimp. I know that some people have reservations about this, but don’t be put off by deep fried shrimp with the shell and the head! That is how I’ve eaten shrimp all my life, and that’s because the entire shrimp is completely and perfectly edible, including the head. But you are welcome to remove the head if you prefer, but NOT the shell or the tail for this recipe. Here’s why – I have coated the shrimp shell with tapioca starch (or cornstarch) here, which turns crispy when fried, along with making the shell beautifully crunchy! Also, shrimp/prawns cook very quickly. The shell acts as a barrier between the very hot oil and the soft shrimp flesh inside and helps keep the flesh soft and juicy. So you can fry your shrimp a little longer to make the outside completely crispy, without drying out the shrimp inside. The best of both worlds.
There are several ways to clean head on shrimp. Here I used the method where I cut along the “spine” of the shell to reveal the tract which can then be removed and cleaned. I chose this method because when I marinated the shrimp with garlic and the szechuan salt mix, this cut area lets the marinade penetrate the flesh and flavor the shrimp on the inside as well. But you can choose to keep the shrimp whole, and clean the tract using the toothpick method (which is also explained in that post). You can also remove the head if you like, but DO NOT throw them away. They are amazing for seafood stock/soup! A video on how to clean the shrimp will be coming very soon!
Once the shrimp have marinated for an hour (or 2 at most), you can cook them in 1 of 2 ways. The first is to coat them with corn starch or tapioca starch/flour and deep fry on high heat until crisp and a light golden brown. The second is to grill the shrimp on a pan or grill. Here of course, I chose to deep fry them to crispy perfection. It wouldn’t be salt and pepper shrimp otherwise.
Make sure the oil is heated to a good 400°F. When you add multiple shrimp into your pan, the oil temperature goes down, and that’s definitely not going to help with that beautiful crispy, crunchy texture that we all love. The cooking time for the shrimp is usually between 1.5 – 2 minutes. Then remove from the hot oil and let them drain on a wire rack. They are best served hot (or warm), so you can keep them in a warm oven until ready to be served.
Next, toss them with extra roasted szechuan pepper salt, and crushed red chili flakes (crushed red pepper), and serve with lime wedges. The BEST szechuan salt and pepper shrimp (salt and pepper prawns) deserve the BEST dipping sauce too, so why not make a batch of this amazing spicy sweet chili sauce to go with it as well? 🙂
Crispy and crunchy on the outside and perfectly cooked on the inside with lots of flavor – these really are the best salt and pepper shrimp!
DON’T MISS THE RECIPE VIDEO
Szechuan Salt and Pepper Shrimp (Prawns)
- 510 g 18 oz head-on shrimp (about 20 shrimp)
- Heaped ¼ tsp roasted szechuan pepper salt
- 1 tsp crushed red pepper flakes chili flakes
- 4 garlic cloves minced
- 1 ½ tbsp neutral oil
- ½ - ¾ cup tapioca starch or corn starch
- Oil for deep frying
- Extra szechuan salt and crushed red pepper/chili flakes
Roasted Szechuan Pepper Salt
- ¼ cup Kosher salt
- 3 tbsp szechuan peppercorn 2 tbsp, if you prefer less spice and heat
Roasted Szechuan Pepper Salt
- Place the salt and peppercorn in a dry pan. Heat over medium heat to dry roast the salt and peppercorns while moving them frequently on the pan to prevent them from burning.
- The salt will discolor, and you will be able to smell the beautiful floral fragrance of szechuan peppercorns when it's done.
- Remove from the heat and let it cool down. Grind the salt and peppercorns to a fine powder using a spice grinder or a mortar and pestle. Store in a jar with a tight lid and use as needed.
Cleaning Head-on Shrimp
- If the shrimp is frozen, thaw them out in cold or room temperature water (not warm water).
- Using a pair of kitchen scissors/shears, snip off the sharp ends from the shrimp head (there’s a sharp point at the top of the head, and also the sharp mouth tips).
- Locate the space between the shrimp head and the point where the shrimp body shell starts. Using the shears, cut along the “spine” of the shrimp shell - from where it starts (just after the head), to about ⅔ of the way down.
- This will expose the intestinal tract (vein) of the shrimp. Remove this using a toothpick or under cold running water. Rinse the shrimp and place them on paper towels and blot to dry.
Preparing Crispy Szechuan Salt and Pepper Shrimp
- Marinate the cleaned and dry shrimp with the roasted szechuan salt, crushed chili flakes, garlic and oil, for about 30 minutes - 1 hour.
- When you’re ready to fry the shrimp, heat oil in a saucepan (about 2 - 3 inches deep), to about 400°F.
- Place the tapioca flour or cornstarch in a dry plate. Cover each shrimp with the starch, and fry in the hot oil (3 - 4 shrimp at a time - without overcrowding the pan), for 1 ½ - 2 minutes. Flip them over once half way through. Cook until they turn light golden and are crispy.
- Remove from the oil and drain the excess oil.
- Place all the shrimp in a bowl and sprinkle extra roasted szechuan pepper salt, red pepper flakes and toss gently to mix.
- Serve with sweet chili sauce and lime wedges. Enjoy!
Tips & Tricks
What’s your favorite way to eat shrimp? Let me know in the comments!
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