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Ann Mah's
Salt and Pepper Shrimp with Herb Salad


I grew up in a Chinese-American home where we ate Chinese food every day. By the time I moved to China as an adult, it no longer had the power to thrill me. Like Isabelle, the main character in Kitchen Chinese, I thought I knew everything about Chinese cuisine.

Living in Beijing for four years was a revelation of different dishes, flavors, spices, and textures. I discovered a world beyond my own narrow experience, an enormous country divided into different regions, each with its own unique and vibrant cuisine. I ate with an open heart, and was rewarded by a greater understanding of an ancient and diverse country, and a greater acceptance of my own ethnic identity – experiences that formed the foundation of my novel.

Still, though I love to cook, I never cooked Chinese food at home. That is, not until a couple of years ago when I left Beijing and moved to Paris. Somewhere amid the gracious sweep of Hausmannian buildings, with my cravings for unpasteurized cheese and red wine finally satisfied, I began to yearn for something else… something spicy.

My dad gave me the recipe below – he’s a wonderful, creative cook who has been making these salt and pepper shrimp since I was a kid. Though in the book I imagine Isabelle’s mother making this dish as part of a multi-course Chinese feast, I like to serve the shrimp as a first course, pairing them with a leafy herb salad. Together the two form an east-meets-west combination, a fusion of two cultures – sort of like Isabelle, and sort of like me, too.

Salt and Pepper Shrimp with Herb Salad

Makes 4 servings

For the salad

3 cups arugula or mixed salad greens, washed and spun dry
1 cup mixed fresh leafy herbs (such as cilantro, basil, and mint) washed and spun dry, the leaves removed from stems (and stems discarded)
½ tablespoon balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon sesame oil

For the shrimp

1 pound large uncooked shrimp (about 12), peeled, deveined, cleaned and patted dry
2 tablespoons salt-sugar-pepper mixture (see recipe below)
1-2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons cornstarch, divided
1 tablespoon minced garlic cloves
¼ cup minced green onions
2-3 tablespoons dry cocktail sherry (pale)
2 tablespoons pine nuts, lightly toasted

1.  To make the salad:  Toss arugula or salad greens with the leafy herbs.  Add the vinegar and oils, toss, and distribute evenly to four salad plates. 

2.  To make the shrimp:  Toss the shrimp with the salt-sugar-pepper mixture in a medium bowl, and set aside.  Heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a wok or sauté pan on medium-high heat until smoking.  Add shrimp to the hot pan.

3.  As the shrimp cook, sprinkle them with 1 tablespoon of cornstarch.  Add more oil if pan becomes too dry. Turn the shrimp when they turn pink, about 1½ minutes, and add remaining tablespoon of cornstarch.  The cooking process only takes a few minutes.

4.  When the shrimp have just turned pink, add the minced garlic and toss. Add the green onions and toss. Add just enough sherry to create a sauce that barely coats the shrimp. Remove from heat. Add the pine nuts.

5.  Place 3 shrimp with sauce on top of greens on each plate.  Serve immediately.

Salt-Sugar-Pepper Mixture

Makes about ½ cup

Note:  This is a master batch for your spice cabinet. You can increase the quantities to make more and store it in a jar.

2 tablespoons sugar
4 tablespoons salt
6 tablespoons ground black pepper

Combine ingredients.  Store in a tightly covered jar.