KUALA LUMPUR, April 10 – Prawns ought to make us laugh.

I don’t mean we should expect fresh shrimp at the supermarket to do a stand-up routine at the Seafood section, melting the piles of crushed ice with their spicy jokes.

No, it’s simply a holdover from reunion meals every year. One of the requisite dishes would be a platter of prawns since their name in Cantonese – “ha” – sounds just like the music of joyful laughter.

We could all do with a laugh now. Not a mean laugh, but one shared – with appropriate social distancing – with our friends and family, to remind us that better days will come.

I remember how my mother would cook this family favourite dish, and later my niece, using tomato ketchup and her own recipe for sambal. She would make sure there would be copious amounts of gravy for all of us to enjoy with rice.

Make your own 'sambal' from scratch ahead of time.
Make your own 'sambal' from scratch ahead of time.

Years later, I realised this would be a great dish to enjoy with friends too. Just catching up over a few cold beers, my friend Blue Mike from Chicago opened chilled bottles of Franziskaner Weißbier with relish, and us tucking into these prawns with equal fervour.

Extra gravy wouldn’t work quite as well in such an instance. What is called for is “no-sauce” sauce, just enough of a barely there glaze to get us deliciously dirty.

Don’t worry about under-seasoning. The prawns soak up the flavours of the marinade; the no-sauce sauce is meant to coat the prawns and to linger on our fingers and remain smeared on our lips. The taste of laughter and the good days that will return.

With the right frame of mind, and a platter of saucy, 'no-sauce' tomato chilli prawns? Perhaps those days are already here.


Other than deveining the prawns, you may leave the prawns as is, with the heads and tails intact. Shelling it is part of the pleasure of eating them and their “armour” certainly helps keep them succulent after cooking.

Fresh prawns are a must.
Fresh prawns are a must.

Prawns overcook very easily therefore a quick stir fry is in order here. Even with the need for speed, they will shrink with cooking so begin with medium sized prawns otherwise you may end up with the tiniest (but still delicious) shrimp for our plate.

For the sambal, I have included a trusty recipe that you can make ahead of time. (Or using whatever sambal you have in the fridge.) Feel free to tweak this basic sambal recipe by adding other ingredients to suit your taste buds.

Aromatics and spices for homemade 'sambal.'
Aromatics and spices for homemade 'sambal.'

Perhaps a touch of assam (tamarind juice) or belacan (toasted shrimp paste)? Lemongrass would give it a hint of Thai. Even the white sugar can be replaced with gula Melaka for a further aromatic hit and depth of flavour.

'Gula Melaka' adds a floral sweetness to the “no sauce” sauce.
'Gula Melaka' adds a floral sweetness to the “no sauce” sauce.

That last one would further accentuate the gula Melaka used in the main recipe for the prawns. I always find using gula Melaka adds a touch of floral sweetness that goes beyond straightforward saccharine. That helps prevent the prawns from being too cloyingly sweet.

Tomato paste has a more intense acidity compared to ketchup.
Tomato paste has a more intense acidity compared to ketchup.

Then again, that is where the tomato paste comes in. Ketchup, which is what my mother would use, is a tad too sweet for my taste. Instead, use tomato paste for tanginess that comes from a natural acidity.

Trick is to use only a smidgen of sambal and tomato paste so make sure those pastes are concentrated to fully focus the flavours. Also, this is a dry fry and not a wet one, full of gravy to mop up with rice.

Rather, this is a dish you can eat with your hands and lick your fingers happily afterwards. Hence a happy two dozen of the freshest specimens rather than a smaller number of prawns when eaten with rice.

Best paired with a cold beer or two.

Ingredients: Sambal

4 small red onions or shallots

16 large fresh chillies

16 dried chillies

4 cloves garlic

1/2 teaspoon turmeric

1/2 teaspoon sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon cooking oil

Ingredients: Prawns

2 dozen medium sized prawns (deveined, heads and tails left on)

1 tablespoon fish sauce

1 tablespoon Shaoxing rice wine

2 teaspoons sesame oil

Neutral oil, for cooking

2-3 cloves garlic, minced

1 tablespoon sambal

1 tablespoon tomato paste

2 tablespoons gula Melaka


To make the sambal, combine all the ingredients for the sambal in a food processor and mix until smooth. Heat the cooking oil in a pan. Add sambal ingredients and fry for a few minutes till fragrant and darkened in colour. Remove from heat and set aside to cool. The cooled sambal can be made ahead of time and kept in the fridge for a week.

To prepare the prawns, devein the prawns but keep the shell, heads and tails intact. Give them a good rinse under running water and pat dry using kitchen towels. Transfer to a large bowl. Add the fish sauce, Shaoxing rice wine and sesame oil. Mix well and allow to marinate for at least 20 minutes, preferably an hour, in the fridge.

Heat a little neutral cooking oil in a wok, just enough to coat the surface of the wok. Add the minced garlic and sauté until aromatic but not yet golden brown (you will continue cooking and don’t want the garlic to burn, which it does, easily).

Add the marinated prawns to the wok. Stir fry until half cooked before adding the sambal, tomato paste and gula Melaka. Continue cooking until any excess liquid has dried up and the sauce coats all the prawns.

A full platter of tomato chilli prawns that will keep you “ha-ha” happy.
A full platter of tomato chilli prawns that will keep you “ha-ha” happy.

Transfer to a large plate and serve immediately.

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