Ebi no chirisōsu, or shrimp in chili sauces, is one of the most popular dishes in chuuka, or Chinese-Japanese cuisine. Often affectionately shortened to “ebichiri,” it can be found throughout Japan on Chinese restaurant menus, at convenience stores, and in homes, where it’s prepared for family dinners and bento boxes.
The first time I tried ebichiri was at a Chinese restaurant in Tokyo and I’ll admit it didn’t immediately win me over. I had recently relocated to Japan for what I initially thought would be a short stint (I ended up staying for more than 8 years). Given my Hainanese and Cantonese heritage, I found the sweet, oniony, and not-at-all spicy sauce not quite to my liking, but with time, it’s become one of my favourite chuuka dishes.
Japan’s history with Chinese cuisine stretches back into antiquity. However, between 1603 and 1868, an isolationist foreign policy known as sakoku, or "locked country," was enacted that heavily restricted Japan's interaction with the outside world. Consequently, Chinese cuisine became largely centralized around trading ports like Nagasaki (and, to a lesser extent, Yokohama and Kobe), which remained open to Chinese trade. As a direct result of the influence of Chinese sailors and merchants from Guangdong and Fujian, you’ll find a mix of Cantonese and Hokkien cuisine in dishes like gua bao, sweet and sour pork, and siu mai (dishes that are commonplace in Chinatowns in the West) around those areas. In Slurp!: A Social and Culinary History of Ramen—Japan's Favorite Noodle Soup, Barak Kushner writes that other dishes with Chinese origins, like ramen and gyoza, have more relatively recently become popular in Japan, having been introduced to the general population after the return of Japanese soldiers from military campaigns in Chinese provinces, like Jiangsu, during the 1930s.
Due to these influences, chuuka cuisine in Japan has evolved very differently from the Cantonese-based Chinese food that is available in the West. To be clear, chuuka is a general, yet continuously evolving, term for Chinese food in Japan. The term applies not only to Chinese food more widely as it's cooked in China, but also to an emergent Chinese-Japanese cuisine. Chuuka’s evolution is continually shifting to suit Japanese taste.
Today, popular chuuka dishes include mapo tofu, hui guo rou (twice-cooked pork), dandan noodles, and ebichiri. These dishes have been adapted to suit Japanese tastes, with less chile heat than might be found in their Sichuanese counterparts. But where does this Sichuanese influence come from? Interestingly, that influence is largely credited to one person: Chen Kenmin, the renowned Chinese-born Japanese chef.
Chen was originally from Sichuan but trained in Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Taiwan before immigrating to Japan in 1952. After his arrival, he found huge success with Shisen Hanten, his restaurant in Tokyo’s Akasaka district (the name rather unimaginatively translates to “Sichuan Restaurant”), and regular appearances on the long-running Japan Broadcasting Corporation’s cooking show Kyō no Ryōri or “Today’s Menu”, which has aired continuously since the 1960s. (Fans of the cooking show Iron Chef, may know Chen Kenmin as the father of Chen Kenichi, who appeared as the Iron Chef Chinese).
Over his decades-long career, Chen helped popularize many Sichuanese dishes, like mapo tofu, mapo nasu (a mashup of mapo tofu and yu xiang eggplant), ebichiri and its cousin ebimayo (prawns in mayonnaise sauce), ramen-style soupy dandan noodles, and bang bang chicken.
Chen’s dishes pull not just from his Sichuanese roots, but also from his experiences with Shanghainese and Cantonese cuisines. Sichuan, where Chen trained, has long been a source of inspiration for Chinese chefs working in large international ports like Shanghai and Hong Kong. You can see that influence clearly in ebichiri. While Sichuanese cuisine is known for its distinctive combination of numbing Sichuan pepper (má) and hot chile (là), ebichiri has been adapted to suit local tastes and a lower tolerance for spicy heat. It uses ketchup to temper the heat from the Sichuan chile-bean paste (doubanjiang) and incorporating prawns (an ingredient not particularly common in landlocked Sichuan). Versions of “tobanjan” (the Japanese romanization used for Sichuan chile-bean pastes) available in Japan tend to be sweeter, smoother, and less spicy than the Sichuanese varieties, but I prefer using Sichuan's Pixian doubanjiang, which is a spicy and often chunky paste made from broad beans and erjingtiao chiles.
In Japan, Chinese restaurants (as well as many ramen restaurants) use woks, which are generally of excellent quality (like most carbon steel cookware in Japan). However, true round-bottom woks remain a rarity in Japanese home kitchens. Woks used in homes tend to be hybrid varieties more suitable for use on domestic stoves―single-handled, flat-bottomed, and often non-stick―rather than true Chinese-style woks for achieving wok hei. However, while true wok hei is rare in Japanese home cooking, the composition of homestyle chuuka dishes like ebichiri and the equally popular chinjao rōsi (sliced pork fried with green peppers) tend to be in line with traditional Chinese stir-fries, which combine a few ingredients with a light seasoning, as opposed to the heavily-sauced, deep-fried meats popular in the West, like General Tso's chicken. These homestyle dishes are often cooked in a frying pan or skillet; I’ve written my recipe for ebichiri to work in both a carbon-steel wok or skillet to straddle that Chinese-Japanese line.
Although it’s deep-fried, the textural goal of ebichiri is not crispy shrimp in the style of General Tso’s or sesame chicken. Rather, like many fried Japanese dishes, the intent here is to give the shrimp a craggy coating that absorbs moisture from the sauce, creating layer upon layer of silky texture. Served with cooked rice and pickles (like Sichuanese zha cai, pickled mustard root, which is commonly served with chuuka meals), ebichiri is a great introduction to the pleasures of chuuka cuisine.
In a small bowl, whisk together 1 teaspoon potato starch with 1/4 cup (60ml) cold water until well combined; set aside.
Rinse the shrimp under cold running water, massaging the shrimp with your hands, for 1 minute. In a medium bowl, combine the rinsed shrimp, baking soda, egg white, and salt. Add remaining 2 tablespoons potato starch and, using a spoon or clean hands, toss to coat shrimp.
Place a wire rack over a rimmed baking sheet. In a carbon-steel wok or 10-inch carbon steel or stainless-steel skillet, heat oil over high heat to 330°F (165°C). Add shrimp, discarding any excess marinade and dropping from as close to the oil’s surface as possible to minimize splashing, and fry, stirring and turning occasionally, until cooked through, about 2 minutes. (Potato starch will not brown significantly like wheat flour would, so the cooked shrimp will still appear quite pale.) Using a spider or slotted spoon, transfer shrimp to prepared baking sheet. Carefully ladle oil through a fine-mesh strainer set over a medium heatproof bowl.
Return 2 tablespoons (30ml) oil to now-empty wok and return the wok to high heat (allow remaining oil to fully cool before storing). Add ginger and garlic and cook, stirring constantly, until softened but not browned, about 10 seconds. Add chile-bean paste and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in chicken stock, ketchup, sugar, vinegar, sake, and negi (or leek). Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer and cook, stirring, until negi (leek) is softened and tender, about 2 minutes. Adjust seasoning to taste with sugar, vinegar, or salt as required.
Add reserved shrimp and toss to coat. Stir in potato starch slurry, a teaspoon or two at a time, until sauce thickens enough to coat the shrimp in a glaze; discard any remaining potato starch-water mixture or reserve for another use. If sauce over-thickens and becomes gloppy, loosen by stirring in water 1 tablespoon at a time.
Transfer to a plate and serve immediately.
Tobanjan, the versions of Sichuanese doubanjiang available in Japan, tends to be sweeter and less spicy than Chinese originals. For this recipe, I prefer to use Sichuan Pixian doubanjiang, but most Japanese, whether at home or in restaurants, will use the local Japanese varieties. Varieties from Pixian are often chunky in texture with the broad beans and erjingtiao chiles left whole, so you may need to chop them into a paste by hand before using. You may need to adjust the amount of sugar used depending on the type of paste used.
Negi, also known as a Welsh onion, is basically a giant scallion with a higher ratio of white part to green shoot; it can be found at Asian markets.
The common technique used when thickening sauces with a starch mixture is to add the starch in 3 additions, using your judgement to adjust the amount added each time. This is to avoid too much starch being added too quickly, which will produce a gloopy sauce.