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 Iron Chef chili shrimp Recreating Chef Chen Kenichi's Szechwan recipe.
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Iron Chef chili shrimp

Chen Kenichi
Iron Chef Chen Kenichi
All right, I admit it, I like FoodTV's ridiculous food challenge, Iron Chef. Sosumi!

It's not the food-as-pro-wrestling concept or the program's campy, tongue-in-Japanese-cheek approach that appeals to me, though, so much as a more serious food-lover's element that's found more between the lines than on the surface: Even if the "challenge" and its outcome are largely scripted, there's some hard-core cooking happening on the Kitchen Arena floor, as leading restaurant chefs innovate and improvise with the ingredient du jour under time pressure.

Detailed recipes aren't published or even necessarily shown in full as the camera cuts from scene to scene. But I've picked up on some really interesting ideas and crafted more than a few recipes of my own (such as the pork and shrimp roll featured last month) based on a glimpse of a dish being prepared by Chen, Morimoto, Sakai or one of their usually hapless challengers.

One frequently recurring Iron Chef theme is Szechwan chili prawns, a mysterious creation purportedly invented by the late Chinese chef Chen Kenmin, who is invariably described in hushed, reverent tones as "the God of Szechwan cooking." Iron Chef Chinese Chen Kenichi, Kenmin's son, is said to have mastered his father's dish and often trots it out in the heat of competition; on occasion a challenger will offer a version in an attempt to prove he can do it even better.

I've never seen the preparation shown in full from start to finish, but it looks simple enough: Prawns or large shrimp are stir-fried with a scant, thick, bright-red Szechwan-style sauce that appears to have ketchup as a key ingredient and that is surely fiery. At some point during the quick procedure, Chen almost always picks up his oversize wok and gives it a toss, causing the entire contents to fly up in the air, gently flip, and fall back into the pan. I decided not to try to emulate this.

The rest of the dish went easily enough, though. On the first try, declining to venture out to get ketchup, I substituted a bit of tomato paste mixed with Asian flavor ingredients and hot chile spice. After conferring with my foodie buddy Stuart on our Food Lovers' Discussion Group, I tried it again, replacing the tomato paste with an even more offbeat ingredient: Heinz-brand chili sauce. Remarkably, this option was a triumph, well worth the investment in a small bottle of a mass-market condiment that I'll likely use again.

One more keys to success - and good advice in making almost any assertively flavored Szechwan dish - use more garlic, ginger and scallions than you think seems reasonable. Don't hold back. Your taste buds will thank you.

Speaking of Chen on the FoodTV Website, the netork's publicists wrote, "With his good-humored, expressive face, Kenichi promotes the philosophy 'Cooking is love,' and he offers happiness through his food." I can't disagree with that. Iron Chef makes me smile.

INGREDIENTS: (Serves two)

18-20 peeled jumbo shrimp, about 12 ounces (360g)
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
1/4 teaspoon dried red-pepper flakes
2 tablespoons (30g) Heinz Chili Sauce or 1 tbsp tomato paste
2 tablespoons hoisin sauce
2 tablespoons shaoshing rice wine or Sherry
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teapoon Asian chili garlic sauce or Sriracha hot sauce
1/4 teaspoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon peanut oil
1/4 cup chopped scallions (green onions)


1. Dissolve 1 tablespoon salt in 4 cups of warm water, and put the shrimp in to "brine" for 10 or 15 minutes.

2. Peel and mince the garlic and ginger and set them aside in a small bowl with the dried red-pepper flakes. Mix all the remaining ingredients except the peanut oil and scallions in a bowl. Chop the scallions.

3. Heat a wok or saute pan over high heat until it's very hot, then put in the peanut oil and swirl to cover the bottom of the pan. When it sizzles, put in the garlic, ginger and red-pepper mix and stir-fry briefly, until the vegetables are translucent. Add the shrimp and the chili sauce or tomato paste mix and stir-fry just until the shrimp are cooked through and pink, adding a small amount of water if the sauce becomes too thick and dry. Stir in the scallions and serve with plenty of steaming white rice.

MATCHING WINE: Fiery Asian dishes like this one are challenging with wine, and many experts advise against even bothering to try. Cold beer or tea makes a fine beverage companion. I'm always experimenting, though, and in two variations on this dish tried two different light-style reds - the Sokol-Blosser "Meditrina" red blend featured in yesterday's 30 Second Wine Advisor and a Chanrion 2002 Beaujolais Cotes-de-Brouilly - reasoning that the tomato sweetness and chile-pepper kick of the sauce would stand up to a red even if the shrimp would usually suggest a white. As it turned out, both pairings were passable if not awe-inspiring, the sauce and the wine seeming to heighten each other's fruit, but making a less-than-refreshing match with the heat of chile peppers. Another time, I might try falling back on an off-dry Riesling, which often works surprisingly well with fiery fare, or a more idiosyncratic match that I swear works with hot'n'spicy stuff, the much-maligned, sweetish and fizzy Lambrusco of Emilia-Romagna.

Want a copy that's easy to use in the kitchen? You'll find a simple, plain-text version of these recipes, suitable for printing, online at

If you have questions, comments or ideas to share about this recipe or food and cookery in general, you're welcome to drop by our Food Lovers' Discussion Group, where I've posted this article as a new topic, "FoodLetter: Iron Chef chili shrimp."

Click the REPLY button on the forum page to post a comment or response. (If your E-mail software broke this long link in half, take care to paste it all back into one line before you enter it in your Web browser.)

Last Week's FoodLetter and Archives

Last week's Wine Advisor Foodletter: Saltimbocca with a twist (Sept. 30)

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Thursday, Oct. 7, 2004
Copyright 2004 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.

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