If you live in the northern hemisphere, you are likely basking in summer heat, hiding inside with drapes closed to keep the blazing sun rays at bay and keeping fresh with regular blasts from the air conditioner. Such suffocating heat often saps the appetite, reducing the appeal of heavy dishes such as BBQ ribs and steak in all but the heartiest of carnivores. Here, we offer a light, delicate alternative, infused with a sense of spring to refresh your palette.
There’s nothing new about the main ingredients, green tea and shrimp, which are easy to find in most local markets, but the idea of combining them on a single plate is unlikely to occur to all but the most experimental of gourmets.
However, in Hangzhou (杭州), it’s one of the most enjoyable dishes to eat during summer. Newly picked longjing (龙井), or dragon well tea, is used to accompany the river shrimp. Traditionally, the tea leaves have to be picked around Qingming (清明) in early April to ensure their tenderness. The shrimps have to be plump residents of the river, and must be captured alive. Green tea such as longjing is rich in antioxidants, while shrimp is high in protein. When cooked carefully, the shrimps remain white and the tea leaves green. In one bite, the smoothness of the shrimp contrasts with the slightly bitter taste and rougher texture of the tea leaves. Together, the two ingredients form a perfect balance of nutrient content, color, texture and taste.
Hangzhou people favor this dish so deeply that its origin has been romanticized. It is said that the great poet Su Shi (苏轼) was the inspiration behind this delicious invention. Sitting by the riverside on a spring day, he wrote the lines “Brewing the freshly picked tea on the newly started fire, I should enjoy poetry and wine while my youth lasts (且将新火试新茶，诗酒趁年华 Qiě jiāng xīn huǒ shì xīnchá, shī jiǔ chèn niánhuá).” A suitably inspired Hangzhou chef then combined newly picked tea leaves with shrimps from the river to create the dish.
An alternative anecdotal tale involves the Qing Dynasty (1616 A.D. – 1911 A.D.) Qianlong (乾隆) Emperor, who is said to have enjoyed traveling incognito to Southern China. During one such journey, he stopped at a farmhouse and was offered a cup of tea. The brew carried such a delicious fragrance that he grabbed some tea leaves from the farmer’s basket before he left. Later, he visited a restaurant in town and gave the tea to the waiter to prepare. By accident, a corner of his dragon robe, a garb that could be worn only by the emperor, gave away his identity. The waiter scuttled in to tell the chef the news. Reeling from the shock, the chef mistook the tea leaves for chopped green onion and mixed them with the shrimp. The dish turned out surprisingly well and greatly pleased the emperor.
Now, you can follow in his footsteps and can enjoy this dish at home by gollowing the recipe below:
Ingredients: [serves two people]
1000g fresh shrimps
2tbsp longjing tea (or any green tea, but make sure they are leaves, not tea bags)
7tbsp cooking oil
1tbsp egg white
2tsp Chinese cooking wine
1/2cup starch, mixed with 1/4 cup of warm water
2tsp chicken powder (optional)
1. Marinate the shrimps with salt (1/2tsp), egg white, starch and water mixture (1/4cup), 1tsp chicken powder and 1/2tsp of cooking wine.
2. Brew the longjing tea with boiled water and set aside for 5 minutes, then separate the tea leaves from the liquid tea.
3. Heat 5tbsp of oil in a pan until hot and add the shrimps. Stir fry until the shrimps curl up and turn red. Be careful not to overheat the shrimps. Set them in a temporary container. Pour out the remaining oil. Clean and dry the pan.
4. Heat 2tbsp new oil in the pan until hot. Add the shrimps, 1tsp cooking wine, 1/2tsp salt and 1tsp chicken powder.
5. Add in the longjing tea leaves, quickly stir fry. Then add 2tbsp of the liquid tea and stir until the ingredients are evenly mixed. Keep heating until the liquid boils.
6. Add in 1/4 cup starch mixture and stir until even.
7. Serve hot.