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Shrimply Irresistible

A seafood dish fit for an Empress


When all the delicacies in the world fail you, these stir-fried prawns are the one thing that will bring back a hearty appetite—at least according to the legend of the Empress Dowager Cixi. Having been served a jaw-aching 100 different dishes per meal every day, this notorious royal foodie became harder and harder to please, until one day she announced that nothing on the table was to her liking. As capricious as the ruler of the Qing Empire was, it is said that she threatened to behead the entire kitchen staff if they did not come up with something satisfying immediately. The senior chefs were at a loss as to what to do, while a junior cook, who had never had the chance to serve the royal family, stepped up to save the day. The young chef quickly grabbed a handful of prawns, threw them in hot oil and coated them with a special sauce—the whole process taking only a few minutes.

When served, the aroma of vinegar from the dish made the Empress Dowager’s mouth water and she instinctively grabbed for her chop sticks. After just one bite of a prawn, she experienced a sweet and sour taste that was just enough to awaken her appetite. A eunuch, who oversaw the cook’s swift movements, improvised a name for the dish: zhua chao da xia (抓炒大虾), literally meaning to grab and stir-fry the prawns.

Legend aside, zhua chao actually represents a special method of stir-frying involving first coating the ingredients with a mixture of starch and eggs (or water), frying for a short period of time and then returning the ingredients to the wok with the sauce. Because the ingredients should already be cooked after frying, you should stir fast to avoid overcooking. Stir-fried prawns, along with pork tenderloin, kidney and fillet, all cooked using the same technique, were listed in the menu of the “Manchu-Han Imperial Feast” (满汉全席 Mǎn Hàn Quán Xí), a lavish feast served by the Emperor to his officials during the Qing Dynasty (1616-1911).

For seafood, look no further than Guangdong Province on the south coast. People there have recorded fresh prawns being plump and sweet (鲜者肉肥白而甘 xiān zhě ròu féi bái ér gān) for centuries in their chorography. It should be noted that prawns are commonly referred to as daxia, when it’s official name should be duixia (对虾, literally paired shrimps) due to the fact that they were traditionally dried and sold in pairs.

Prawns are also regarded as a re ned ingredient suitable for cultured people. A Qing Dynasty poet recorded in his journal that he often served prawn soup to his guests, which is not only tasty, but good for the mind. (居人往往以享客,且可致远。Jūrén wǎngwǎng yǐ xiǎng kè, qiě kě zhì yuǎn.)

Besides soup and stir-fry, there are a number of cooking methods for prawns including the famous “qingzheng” (清蒸, steam) and “hongshao” (红烧, stew with brown sauce) in Shangdong cuisine.

Rich in protein, vitamin A, calcium and magnesium, prawns are the perfect choice for replenishing your energy. Consumed as part of a balanced diet, prawns can lower cholesterol levels and maintain cardiovascular health.

From the TCM perspective, prawns are believed to strengthen people’s internal power of yang, whose medical effects include treating psychasthenia, a de ciency of the kidneys, the spleen and stomach.

With the help of the modern Chunhualou (春华楼), we bring you delicious and healthy stir-fried prawns.




Marinate the prawns with 1 tablespoon of cooking oil and 1 teaspoon of salt for 1 to 2 minutes. In another container, mix the corn starch with water. Add the prawns after they have marinated. Heat the oil to 130°C, and add the coated prawns one by one. Be sure to separate them so they don’t stick together.


Fry the prawns for 2 minutes until they turn golden. Remove the prawns and set aside to drain. Pour out most of the cooking oil until there is roughly 1 tablespoon left.


Mix the chopped scallion, ginger, 1 tablespoon of cooking oil, 1 teaspoon of salt, soy sauce, vinegar, sugar and tomato sauce together. Stir until even.


Heat the remaining oil for a few seconds and add the mixed condiments. Heat for 10 seconds and then add the fried prawns. Continue to heat and stir for 5 seconds until all the prawns are coated evenly with the sauce.


Be creative with the presentation and add some color to work up your appetite. Serve hot.

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