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Thursday, 3 July 2014

Madras Coconut Shrimp

Do you know, this is about the tastiest stuff that's ever touched my lips.
And if you think that's quite the plaudit, it is.
But it's true.
So I praise the Lord for giving us coconut
And for giving us shrimp
And for imbuing such genius to the unknown, unnamed vendor on Madras's Marina Beach who first made it for me.

First things first, I call this Madras Coconut Shrimp because it will always be Madras to me.
It might be Chennai to everyone else, but it was never Chennai when I was there as a little girl - just Madras.  And so to me, it will only ever be Madras.

So, these prawns are from Madras. And more specifically from Marina Beach - that long, wide stretch of golden sand, extending from St. George's Fort to Santhome, where I used to go for long walks with my dad, just him and me. We'd drive up to the beach, park on the side of the road and walk along the coastline, all the way to the very end, past the Triumph of Labour statue, till the lighthouse stood tall and the land ended.

We would always go at dusk - even a few minutes earlier meant that the heat would be oppressive. So we'd time it perfectly, arriving just as the sun set, painting the sky in vivid shades of purple and pink, and just as we'd start to walk, the sky would turn dark and the first lights of the night would flicker on over the horizon. 

I don't think we spoke much on these walks, my dad and I. Or maybe we did and I just can't remember. What I do remember is that he'd always wear his shoes, but I'd always kick mine off and hold them in my hand. I loved the feel of the sand, soft and warmed by the days sun, against my bare feet. So we'd walk and sometimes I would need to run to keep pace with his long strides. Sometimes he would grab my hand and pull me closer when I'd venture too close to the sea. I loved when he did that.

Marina Beach isn't one of those secluded beaches that you stumble upon and decide to spend a couple of hours with a good read and the sound of waves gently kissing the sand.
No chance.
The waters here aren't calm. Here along the Coromandel Coast, the Bay of Bengal crashes angrily into the shoreline creating an undercurrent so powerful that makes it virtually impossible to swim in. And yet, there is something uplifting about it's spirit, something magnificent about it's ferocity. 

If I close my eyes, I still hear it, see it - the crash of those waves, the swell of the ocean, the foam-crusted surf.

The beach is not quiet. It's frenetic. Buzzing with an almost infectious energy.
Families picnicking; children wading into the sea, shrieking with excitement; women braving the waves, sarees pulled up to their knees, bright colours billowing in the wind; joggers and walkers in a bid to keep fit; lovers strolling coyly, hand in hand, away from prying eyes; a random womens' beach-aerobic class...

...Yes, in my memory, it is always crowded. But never in a bad way. Perhaps because we'd always walk along the edge of the water, people on one side, the vast expanse of dark ocean on the other. It balanced out.

And where there are crowds, there are crowd-pleasers. And so, there were vendors everywhere. Ice cream man, murukku man, candy floss man, balloon man, all crying out their wares, in that repetitive catchy musical way only street vendors do, their honeyed voices being carried with the wind along the whole stretch of beach.

I was never allowed to eat any of it.
You can't trust the water, don't know where their hands have been, you'll get terribly sick etc. etc.
The only thing I was ever allowed - once in a blue moon when my father was in an especially indulgent mood and only under the condition that I was never ever in a million years to let this slip to my mother - were these coconut prawns. And only because they were cooked in such hot oil, any germs that dared venture near, were probably annihilated on the spot.

And so, wild with excitement, I'd take the money from my dad - a few rupees in coins - and run to the makeshift cart on wheels, shaded by a sunshine-yellow umbrella, illuminated by bare bulbs hanging from strings in a line.  And I'd watch the vendor - that unknown, unnamed genius - reach into a pit of marinated prawns and throw them expertly into his sizzling pan. He'd twirl them around in the hot oil for just a couple of minutes, then slide them into a paper cone made from yesterdays newspaper. He'd salt them generously, then ask if I wanted ketchup on top but I wasn't allowed ketchup (fake ketchup, who knows what it really is, how long ago it's been made, dirty hands, dirty bottle etc. etc) 
So I'd always shake my head shyly, and hand him the coins in exchange for the cone.

I'd pop those shrimp - golden fried, hot and crunchy - into my mouth, one at a time, savouring each one completely before the next one went in.  And by the time we'd walk back to the car, they'd be gone, only the salt gathered in a soft white mound at the bottom of the cone, the black print already blurry from the oil - yesterdays news fading fast. 

And so, this is for those memorable moments of your life, because when I pop these into my mouth, it takes me back to the memorable moments of my life.
To the taste of sea salt.
And the sand between my toes.
And the cries of the balloon man carrying with the wind.

Here's what you need:

450g shrimp, peeled and deveined
45g cornflour
4 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
150g sweetened shredded coconut (dessicated)
2 egg whites

Here's how you do it:

Please note that the Marina Beach version is (very) deep fried.  I'm baking my coconut shrimp. Mostly in response to my lovely neighbour who called this morning asking me how I could love food so much and still be "so thin" - This is why: I cheat.

So here we go:

Preheat oven to 200C

Rinse shrimp thoroughly under running water and pat dry.

Mix the shredded coconut with cornflour, salt and Worcestershire sauce. Beat egg whites until light and frothy. Working with one shrimp at a time, dip the shrimp in egg whites and then coat with coconut mixture. I like to do this again, just to form a double coating. Now place shrimp in the oven and bake for 15-20 minutes until the prawns are cooked through and the coconut coating is crispy-brown and aromatic.

If you want to deep fry instead, I'm never going to stop you! Just heat some vegetable oil in a deep skillet, and when you've coated the shrimp as above, work in batches and fry about 2-3 minutes until golden brown and crispy.  Enjoy!

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