Thai Shrimp Stir-fry with Garlic, Cilantro and Peppercorns

I love the simplicity of this dish.  It is based on a seasoning paste that is common in Thai cuisine.  Unlike curry pastes, which involve many ingredients, this paste consists just of garlic, peppercorns (preferably white) and cilantro roots.  The hardest part of making it is finding a grocer that sells cilantro with the roots still attached (Usually, asian groceries leave the roots on so look there first).    This shrimp dish is simple and perfect and you should totally try it, but I also suggest just throwing some of this seasoning paste into your next stir fry or marinade for fish or chicken.  The flavour of the paste is amazing and I have had great luck experimenting with it.

If you are on a gluten-free diet, please take care with the brands of fish and oyster sauce that you use for this recipe.  I recommend Lee Kum Kee’s Panda Brand Green Label Oyster Flavoured Sauce and I have read that Choy Sun Oyster Flavoured Sauce is also gluten-free.  In addition to being gluten-free these brands are also MSG free.  I recommend Tiparos fish sauce because in addition to being gluten-free it is also the best tasting fish sauce (in my opinion and the opinion of my friend Bethany who is both Laotian and an excellent cook).


adapted from The Best of Vietnamese and Thai Cooking by Mai Pham

(serves 2 generously and 4 as part of a more elaborate meal)

  • 1/2 pound raw shrimp with shells
  • a few sprigs of cilantro greens
  • 2 small onions (one sliced and one chopped)
  • 2 cups water
  • 1/4 teaspoon of salt
  • 3 cloves of garlic, peeled and sliced
  • 1 Tablespoon scrubbed and chopped cilantro roots (if you don’t have enough add some stems)
  • 1/2 teaspoon whole white peppercorns
  • 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 2 chilies (optional, I used sliced jalapenos but Thai chilies would be more authentic)
  • 2 teaspoons fish sauce
  • 1 tablespoon oyster sauce
  • 1 cup bamboo shoots (I used canned shoots, drained)
  • 5 kaffir lime leaves or the peel of one lime, pith removed and thinly sliced
  • 2 plum tomatoes
  • cilantro for garnish
  1. If you are making rice to serve with this start it first, because this dish is quick.  Rice noodles are also good (and faster).
  2. Peel the shrimp and put the shells and tails into a sauce pan with the cilantro greens, the chopped onion, the water and the salt.  Allow it to boil vigorously over high heat, while you prepare everything else (keep an eye on it and add bits of water if it boils down too much.  In the end you will need just 3 tablespoons of shrimp broth).
  3. Rinse the peeled shrimp and, if needed, devein them by making a slice along the entire length of the outer curve of the shrimp with a very sharp knife.  This will reveal a long dark vein (the contents of the shrimp’s intestine) which you can pick or rinse out.  I decide to devein a batch of shrimp maybe once every 20 times I make them. If the shrimp are very large, and the contents of their veins making them appear very grey or are leaking out and covering the entire batch of shrimp with grey goo, then I clean them.  This is almost never the case with medium-sized shrimp and I am of the opinion that most of the time this step is fussy and totally unnecessary….I may be in the minority opinion about this though.
  4. This dish cooks up really fast, so you should  have everything prepared and set beside the stove before you start.  Grind the garlic cloves, cilantro roots and white peppercorns in a mortar and pestle until they make a paste.  Set the mortar near the stove.
  5. Combine the washed shrimp, onion and chili peppers in a medium bowl and set beside the stove.
  6. Combines the fish sauce, oyster sauce, bamboo shoots, lime leaves and tomatoes in a medium bowl and set beside the stove.
  7. Check on your shrimp shell stock.  It should taste sweet, salty and shrimpy!  Measure out 3 Tablespoons of the broth into the bowl with the fish and oyster sauce.
  8. Heat 3 Tablespoons of oil in a wide skillet over high heat.  Make sure to place a spatula near the stove so that you can quickly scrape all of the pastes and sauces out of the bowl without difficulty.
  9. When the oil is hot add the garlic paste and stir until fragrant (about 20 seconds).
  10. Quickly, add the shrimp, onions and chilies and stir fry for 2 to 3 minutes.
  11. Add the rest of the ingredients all at once and stir fry for another 3 minutes.
  12. Garnish with cilantro and serve with rice or rice noodles and some sort of green vegetable (like bok choy!).

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