A popular accompaniment of Chinese takeout food, prawn crackers are crisp and light. But do they really contain prawn? How do they turn so crisp?
What are prawn crackers?
In the English-speaking world, prawn cracker is the generic term for fried puffy crackers that often accompany Chinese takeout food. They are often white (or off-white) although multi-colored variants (courtesy of food coloring) are not uncommon.
In Asia, there is more nuance.
In Indonesia, prawn cracker is krupuk udang and only one of numerous krupuk variants. Krupuk (also kerupuk) is a the term for starch-based crackers that are deep fried. A paste made from tapioca starch and water is flavored, sliced and sundried before frying. The flavor can be anything from prawn or shrimp to fish to squid to garlic. The shape of the crackers vary too.
The crackers are called keropok in Malaysia, kropek in the Philippines, bánh phồng in Vietnam and xiapian in China where they are a popular snack more than a side dish. Just like Indonesian krupuk, Filipino kropek and Vietnamese bánh phồng come in various flavors too.
The crackers can be bought ready-to-eat or ready-to-fry.
Do prawn crackers contain real prawn?
Well, the reputable ones do. But with the way prawn crackers are mass produced, no one really knows.
How is prawn cracker prepared at home?
This part does not include making the paste and sundrying it. This is about store-bought crackers that you fry in hot oil.
It might seem idiotic to write a tutorial about frying crackers but there is actually an art to it. The wrong temperature, the wrong amount of oil and the wrong size of the cooking vessel can prevent the crackers from puffing sufficiently.
Start with a large frying vessel
A wok is always ideal. Although you should fry only a few pieces at a time, the cooking vessel should be large so that the puffed crackers can be easily scooped out with a spider. You can’t maneuver the spider inside a too-small frying pan. The cooking pan should also be deep enough to contain oil that is at least three inches deep. No, you will not ingest all that oil. That’s just to make sure that when the crackers are dropped in, every part is submerged in oil.
So, let’s fry some kropek. Remember, use a large and deep frying pan.
You need plenty of cooking oil
Pour cooking oil into the cooking pan. At least three inches deep. Yes, that much. Turn on the stove and start heating the oil.
The cooking temperature is crucial
To make sure that you have the correct temperature, drop in one cracker first. If it stays at the bottom, the oil isn’t hot enough. If it turns dark before you can scoop it out, the oil is too hot. So, adjust the fire and wait a minute or two for the temperature of the oil to adjust accordingly.
Use a kitchen spider
Most people drop the cracker directly into the oil. They wait for the crackers to float, all puffed, and scoop them out.
The thing is, the frying takes only seconds. And there is a hair’s breadth between the time that the crackers are perfectly cooked and the time when they start to burn. If you aren’t fast enough gathering them all with a spider so that you can lift them out in a single scoop, the ones that get left behind will burn before you can dump the ones you have gathered into a bowl and bring the spider back into the oil again. Boo hoo.
This is how my husband, Speedy, fries crackers. Super smart way.
When the oil is hot, he plunges the spider into it to coat the metal. The prevents the crackers from sticking to the spider.
Then, he drops the crackers into the spider and lowers the spider in the hot oil.
He wiggles the spider as the crackers start to puff to make sure they separate and fry evenly.
He keeps wiggling the spider until the crackers are fully puffed.
By the time the crackers are done, he doesn’t have to waste time gathering them to scoop them out. He just needs to lift the spider off the oil. No risk of burning the crackers.
An alternative to the wok / spider combo is a sauce pan / noodle basket combo
A noodle basket, sold in groceries, is really for dumping noodles into boiling water to reheat them. Or, in the case of fresh Asian egg noodles, to soften them. Same principle. So that the noodles won’t stay too long in the hot water and risk getting them soggy, they are dipped in hot water for only the exact amount of time they need to get heated through. You can use a noodle basket and a narrower (but still) deep pan for frying kropek.
Updated from an article originally published on January 23, 2013.