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Tamarind Fried Prawns

Peranakan or Nyonya cuisine is often thought of as being complicated. To a large extent, that is true. Many dishes need meticulous cutting, hours of preparation, multiple steps or exteme slow cooking. But there are also some that are surprisingly easy. Tamarind fried prawns or assam prawns is one of those.

Here in France we’ve just come out of our four-week lockdown. We left our Paris apartment to spend the four weeks near Bordeaux, where my husband’s family has a house in a small village, amidst the vineyards. We were lucky with the weather and ate outdoors in the garden almost everyday and took long walks traipsing through vineyards and quiet lanes. Sunny weather calls for barbecues of course, and we did a few of those. A visit to our home in Bordeaux is never official until we’ve grilled some duck breasts over grapevine prunings or des sarments. This we do indoors, in a large chimney. We buy our prunings once a year or every couple of years - cut, dried and bundled in appropriate sizes - at farmers markets or directly from a wine producer in the area. We did a fair share of baking too, and though I am always suspicious of my weighing scales, I think its current readings are legitimate.

Now back in Paris, I miss the daily poking around in the garden; so often irrationally gratified I was pulling out weeds, it’s a concern! The prospect of travel is still nought, despite it being spring temperatures are still in the single digits, the third book of Hilary Mantel’s Tudor England trilogy is taking me forever to finish. Sounds like I am coming dangerously close to ‘languishing’, recently defined by the NY Times as “that sense of stagnation”. In school, "languishing in prison" was a much quoted example by teachers in explaining the word, so I guess it fits our current confinement circumstances.

Perhaps some nostalgic cooking is what I need right now. But still, something that doesn’t take too much of an effort since its a weeknight. A lot of delicious, but not a lot of work is this assam prawns that my mum used to make. The tart tamarind is an exquisite complement to the sweet savoury tender prawns and you won’t believe how easy it is.

Since fresh (raw) prawns or gambas as they are known here aren’t always available, its not something I cook often. Picard, the frozen food specialist, does offer a variety of uncooked prawns in many sizes and forms. You can buy them shelled with just the tails on, or completely intact or de-veined with shells on. I like to cook mine with head and shells on. Using a pair of kitchen scissors, I trim the beards and cut a slit in the back of the prawn and pull out the vein from near the head.

The prawns have so much more flavour cooked with shells and heads on. The right way to eat them would be with your fingers of course. First, as elegantly as you possibly can, lick off all that luscious, slightly charred saucy marinade. Then peel the prawns, which are easy at this stage because they’ve been cut open along the back. You may have made some extra sauce with the leftover marinade, and this can be served alongside the prawns or with some rice.

You may decide to serve the prawns on a bed of sliced lettuce and everyone can attack them at their own pace (which is disadvantageous for those less competent in the art of prawn peeling) or you can do some fancy individual plating with some sauce on the side. Serve them with a side salad or plain steamed rice. That’s how you travel with your tastebuds, languish not!

Large king prawns were something reserved for special occasions like Chinese New Year. But regular-sized prawns or shrimps were regularly served at the dinner table, in various ways. This is one of my favourite ways to eat it. In France, raw fresh prawns are hard to come by and when they do, they are usually quite expensive. Frozen prawns however can be found in various forms - shelled, heads removed, deveined, whole - at supermarkets and the frozen food specialist, Picard. I like to make this with shells intact, but please go ahead and use shelled prawns, or whatever you prefer.

Tamarind Fried Prawns


Serves 4 to 5

Prep Time 15 mins/Rest Time 1 hour/Cook Time 4 mins/Active Time 20 mins

  • 400 g large fresh/frozen prawns (about 15 to 16 prawns)

  • 40 g tamarind pulp

  • 1 tbsp hot water

  • 1 tbsp dark soya sauce

  • 1 tsp light soya sauce

  • 1/2 tbsp sugar

  • salt and white pepper

  • 2 tbsp oil for frying

  • Optional: extra 1 tbsp sugar


  1. If using whole prawns with shell, start by trimming beards of prawns. Make slit along back of the prawns to de-vein them without removing shells. Wash and drain. Pat dry with a paper towel.

  2. Loosen the tamarind pulp by mixing it with 1 tbsp of hot water. Add soya sauces, sugar, salt and pepper. Mix the prawns in and leave to marinate 30 minutes to an hour in the fridge.

  3. Heat wok or pan. When the pan is very hot, add oil. Add the prawns in individually, without tipping in all the marinade. Over high heat, fry prawns about 2 minutes on each side. You want the outside to be charred and caramelised but for the prawns to remain juicy.

  4. While the prawns are cooking, add 1 cup of water to the marinade. Mix well.

  5. Remove prawns, place them over a bed of sliced lettuce or plate them individually.

  6. Pour the marinade into the same pan, bring to a boil. Taste and add 1 tbsp if you prefer a sweeter note. Reduce slightly, sieve and remove seeds and fibrous parts of the tamarind pulp. Serve separately or mix it into the prawns if you prefer.


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