Poached shrimp is used in a number of popular Vietnamese dishes, such as goi cuon rice paper salad rolls (a.k.a. summer rolls) and goi du du green papaya salad. I can’t stand the flat taste of most pre-cooked shrimp and typically cook my own by boiling them in a pot of well salted boiling water. As soon as they turn orange and curl up, I fish them out. But after talking with some fellow Vietnamese cooks recently, I changed my ways.
These ladies, one of whom I met in Saigon and the other at a local community college function, told me that a great way to cook shrimp is with a bit of water, vinegar, salt and sugar. It’s fast since you don’t have to boil a bunch of water, tasty as the sweet brininess is more concentrated, and keeps the shrimp from spoiling quickly (important in Vietnam where refrigeration is limited). The flavorful shells are kept on the shrimp during cooking so as to impart greater flavor. This method is apparently quite popular among Viet cooks these days.
I’ve tried this method out several times with white shrimp, both the head-on and head-off types. In both instances, the shrimp were indeed tastier but the shells stuck on the shrimp more and were harder to remove. When I deveined the shrimp (the best method here is to run scissors along the back and pushing out the unwanted dark vein) before cooking, keeping the shells intact, peeling was easier, though the shrimp was slightly less flavorful. It’s as if the shrimp cook better with their jackets on. Tiger shrimp have thicker shells that should be easier to remove with this cooking method. You can always devein after cooking, though doing it beforehand is easier.
Feel free to use this method for cooked shrimp that you’d used for a salad or cocktail – basically any time you need boiled shrimp. For 1/2 pound of shell-on shrimp, combine the following in a medium saucepan:
1 tablespoon distilled white vinegar or unseasoned rice vinegar
2 tablespoons water
3 to 4 teaspoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
Taste and make sure there’s a moderatly strong tart-sweet-salty flavor. Make any flavor adjustments, you’d like. Add the shrimp. Then heat over medium heat, stirring occasionally to ensure even cooking. When things start boiling, pay closer attention and stir frequently. As soon as the shrimp have turned orange and curled up, remove from the heat. Set aside to cool before peeling and using.