What makes Penang Hokkien Prawn Mee special?

Thursday, September 06, 2012

I am making my Mum's Penang Hokkien Mee twice this week and thus, inspired to say something more about it though I have blogged the recipe.

Her version never fails to please. In fact, most are "wow-ed" by it.

So, what is it that makes her Penang Prawn Mee special?

Take a look at the pic below. What you see here flavoured soup which served 70 bowls of Hokkien Mee recently.

Look carefully. What do you think is the special ingredient which makes this dish unique? Ikan bilis (anchovies)? Dried shrimps? But this are common stuff in Chinese soups.

What if I tell you that the key lies in something you can't quite see in this pot?  

Let me ask you a question: Do you like prawn bisque? What about crab bisque? Lobster?  Basically any crustacean bisque recipe can be mouthwatering.

We were looking for a place to have our Wedding Anniversary Dinner and someone recommended Dozo, a Japanese fusion restaurant at Valley point. Amongst the impressive dinner line-up was "Crab Bisque, Cappucino style." It was a wonderful mug of frothy umami-packed soup.

Crab Bisque Cappucino Style at Dozo: I got this pic from a review here
Now, what is the key ingredient in a good seafood bisque?

Often, we think that if something is valuable, it must be hidden. You have to work hard to find it. Much like how you have to struggle to open a durian before you get to the flesh.

What if I tell you that the best part of a crustacean is staring at your face?

You see it and yet you don't. You think that shells are to be emptied of its treasure (meat), set aside and eventually discarded. But to chefs or those who know, shells = a glorious bisque, soup or sauce. 

The great thing about cooking is how some common stuff, including inedible parts of a crustacean, can be transformed into "food glorious food" if you know how. This has been the story of heads and shells of a crustacean. They are largely inedible. At most, post meal, some can be used as a decorative piece, such as a huge lobster shell. As for the tongue twister, "she sells seashells by the seashore," we can be sure that these shells were destined for the display cabinet in the living room, not the pot in the kitchen. And only the pretty ones make it to ornamental status.

But for a long time now, some cuisines have learned the secret of  using these heads and shells as food. The heads/shells of prawns, lobsters, crayfish and crabs are cooked to extract both flavor and color for sauces and soups. The flavor comes from the midgut gland ("liver"), organs where fatty stuff (cholestorol!) is stored.  Grey as prawns may be to blend into the seabed, the shells carry bright carotenoid pigments which enable them to blend into colourful backgrounds. Cooking denatures the shells and frees the carotenoids to reveal their "true colors" (in more ways than one), which is in bright orange-red colour. (This also explains the wonderful colours of a well-made Penang Hae Mee broth.)

The key is to first roast it in some oil. Oil absorbs the carotenoids better than water, intensifying the colours. Then crush, strain (sometimes squeeze) and separate out the fats and flavours. Then cook something from the extract. The results are both flavorful and colorful.

For restaurants, this means turning trash into profits through bowls of seafood bisque or a great sauce to accompany a lobster.

Coming back to Hae Mee, centuries ago, some Hokkiens in Penang discovered that fried and crushed heads/shells can deepen the flavours of a soup. Sometimes they use shrimps (small prawns) whole. But magically, when they are fried and then have their essence extracted (through simmering in a pot), this result in a deeply flavoured soup with oily layers of red. As we can afford and use larger prawns these days, after roasting or stir-frying their heads and shells, a quick blend will do the trick. Whether large prawns or shrimps, their suits have the same effect.

Fry the heads and shells- see the colour
Crush or Blend them (Stick or normal blenders

Don't this look like Dozo's bisque?
This is the one sole ingredient and method which explains why Penang Hokkien Mee is such a stand out. It is the cheap Malaysian version of prawn bisque.

I see no reason why this dish cannot be more common in hawker stalls and homes. It may not be part of the cooking heritage of local Hokkiens and Teochews here but if we are learning and adapting from other cultures (think roti john, green curry chicken pizza), why can't we learn from our counterparts from up-country?

In fact, I have cooked many of my Mum's dishes and this particular one elicits the most favorable response. If so, why don't more cook it here?

Inspired yet?

The next time you eat a prawn or crab - when you are about to discard the shells - just remember what I said here. Think of it as food waiting to happen. Resolve in yourself to "waste not want not." Tell yourself that these heads and shells belong to the gourmet category.

You may want to drop by here to try out this recipe. You shell will not be disappointed.

Hokkien Prawn Mee 'bisque' with a bright orange hue - so good you can drink it on it's own

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  1. Hi Pastor, by pulverising the shells, are the shells n heads liquidised?

    1. They will not be liquidise, just crushed into small pieces. A normal strainer will remove the larger pieces.

  2. Thank you so much for your prompt reply!