Huaiyang cuisine is one of the five major traditional Chinese cuisines, a style of cooking that’s well worth getting to know. Its flavours are light, fresh, and sweet, and its presentation is delicately elegant. It stresses the rich cultural history of its traditional roots.
Huaiyang cuisine takes its name from China’s Huai and Yangtze Rivers, but it’s said that this cuisine is based more in philosophy than geography and that Huaiyang is the cuisine of poets and scholars. It’s a cuisine where poems and stories are as much a part of a recipe as ingredient lists and directions. This prawn dish is no exception.
According to legend, a Qing Dynasty emperor was traveling in Zhejiang Province. As in many good legends featuring an emperor, he was travelling incognito.
A storm forced him to take shelter at a farmhouse. The hospitable villagers treated their humble-looking guest to a delicious tea brewed from newly-plucked Longjing leaves. The sweet fragrant drink delighted him. It was better than even the most expensive teas he was accustomed to as an emperor.
When the storm was over, the grateful traveller readied himself to leave. His hosts, having seen how much their guest enjoyed the Longjing, presented him with a handful of the tea leaves.
The emperor continued on his way until nightfall, and finding food and lodging at an inn, he ordered fried prawns. Then, remembering the tea leaves hidden safely in an inside pocket, he beckoned the waiter and gave him instructions for them to be brewed. But when the emperor opened his coat to get the leaves, he inadvertently exposed his imperial robes and his identity was revealed to the stunned waiter.
Rushing to inform the chef of their imperial guest, the waiter handed over the tea leaves. The poor chef was so flustered that he mistook the tea leaves for green onions and sprinkled them on the prawns. Surprisingly, the emperor was impressed and declared the dish to be delicious. The dish, Longjing prawns, became celebrated in the region, and we pass it down to you with its story and surprising flavours.
Prawns Cooked with Longjing Tea (Serves 4)
1½ pounds medium shrimp (680g)
1 tablespoon fresh Longjing tea (1.88g) or other fresh green tea leaves
1 egg white
1 tablespoon potato starch or cornstarch (7.5g)
1 tablespoon Shaoxing rice wine (14.8g), or substitute good quality (not cooking) sherry
1¼ tablespoons salt (8.4g)
1 cup boiling water (227g)
2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil (26.6g)
Peel and devein prawns, then rinse under cool running water and dry them well. In a bowl, combine egg white, wine, salt, and potato starch and mix well, making a marinade. Add the prawns, coating evenly, and let marinate—an hour is best, but if you’re in a rush, no less than 15 minutes.
Brew tea with hot (80⁰ C/176⁰ F) water. Steep for 5 minutes. Strain to separate tea leaves, reserve the tea.
Add one tablespoon of the oil to a wok, heat and add prawns, cooking very quickly, depending on your heat level, 30 seconds to one minute. The prawns shouldn’t be fully cooked, just beginning to become opaque. Remove prawns and set aside.
Wash the wok and heat it up again with the second tablespoon of oil. Return the prawns to the wok and add the tea leaves and 2 teaspoons of the tea. Stir-fry on high heat for about 3 minutes. If the wok dries out before the prawns appear cooked (see note below) then add another teaspoon or two of the tea.
Note: Overcooked prawns can become rubbery, and when cooking them at high heat, there’s a fine line between “done” and “overdone.” When prawns are cooked, they become opaque, with white, pink, and occasionally red accents. If in doubt, remove one prawn from your wok and break it open. If the center remains translucent, it’s not fully cooked.