Big Girls, Global Kitchens: Southeast Asian Shrimp Paella
OTHER GLOBAL HYBRIDS: Moroccan Bouillabaisse; Soba Noodles with Kale, Parmesan, and Walnut Sauce; Austrian Breakfast Tacos
Throughout our many book appearances and Q&A’s, both online and off, one of the most popular questions people like to ask us is about our process: how do you come up with your recipes? Where do you get your inspiration?
We’re both pretty creative people, so the answer more often than not is: the idea just popped into my head, and I’m not quite sure how it got there. That was certainly the case with this Asian-fusion paella.
During the early days of the blog, I hadn’t logged enough hours in the kitchen to have tackled many of the traditional dishes I’d eaten in restaurants. To make classic Carne Asada, I scoured the internet for various renditions and in the end came up with a game plan that felt closest to the particular memory I was trying to recreate–and was easy enough that I’d want to tackle it. It was a similar process for my first paella, which I made with my friend Alix, who tried to stick more staunchly than I would have liked to the New York Times recipe he had found. But after that first experience making the paella myself (and writing about it on the blog), I didn’t have to consult any recipe again other than my own.
This is when things can get bizarre in BGSK land. Now that we’re both more practiced in the kitchen, we have the tendency to bastardize traditional dishes. Suddenly meatballs contain ginger and cilantro and are dipped in a tikka masala sauce, tacos are topped with spicy sauerkraut (which doesn’t really resemble sauerkraut), and French bouillabaisse loses its rouille and gets treated with Moroccan spices. Recipes like these were, no doubt, also once ideas that just popped into one of our heads.
So, about this paella. I’ve been making a lot of coconut rice lately as an easy, but slightly more creative side dish than just a bowl of white rice (although, I guess, it still ends up being just that). Somehow I got to thinking about making a coconut-scented paella with coconut milk added with the stock, and ginger added to the aromatic base along with onions, scallions (as in the BGSK book version), and garlic. The closest I could come to naming what I wanted to make was “Southeast Asian Paella.”
I consulted Cara, who remembered her coconut rice pilaf, and also that there might be a similar dish in Middle Eastern cooking—the kind of rice recipe made in a clay pot. So I started there in my googling, but to no avail. Next, I actually Wikipedia-ed rice recipes. Who does that? And then who actually looks through all 500 dishes?
Long story short, I didn’t find what I was looking for. So I forged ahead with the idea in my head, making a slight detour from the “paella” part of the experiment by using basmati rice and covering the pan for part of the cooking process. But the flavors I had envisioned were all there by the end, as was the socorat—the crispy, slightly burnt rice at the bottom of the pan that makes paella what it is.
I’m still not quite sure what to call this dish as to not offend the Spanish and all Southeast Asian cultures. But I do know that it’s delicious. So if you end up making this bastardized rice dish with Asian flavors (which I encourage you to do), I would very much appreciate your help in naming it, and perhaps, helping me identify how the idea got in my head in the first place.
From my kitchen, merging and offending cultural cuisines, to yours,
Phoebe, THE QUARTER-LIFE COOK
Southeast Asian Shrimp Paella
Makes 6 servings
1 cup white basmati rice
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 small yellow onion, cut in half lengthwise and thinly sliced
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric, divided
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger (from a 2-inch knob)
4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
4 scallions, thinly sliced, white and green parts divided
2-3 green Thai chiles (serrano chiles work too if you can’t find Thai), stems removed, and thinly sliced
One 15-oz can diced tomatoes
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups light coconut milk
1/4 cup finely chopped cilantro leaves, divided
1 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined with the tails on
Place the rice in a medium bowl and fill with water until covered by 1 inch. Stir the rice around with your fingers. Drain the water. Fill the bowl again halfway with cold water and let it sit at room temperature until the kernels soften, 20 to 30 minutes; drain.
In the meantime, heat the oil in a large lidded saucepan, Dutch oven, or casserole dish over a medium flame. Add the onion and 1/4 teaspoon turmeric and saute until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the ginger, garlic, white parts of the scallions, and the chiles. Continue to cook for another 2 minutes, until very fragrant. Add the tomatoes and salt, and stir to combine. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until partially reduced, about 5 minutes.
In a medium bowl, toss the shrimp with half of the cilantro and the remaining turmeric. Season with salt and set aside.
Stir in the drained rice and the coconut milk. Simmer for 8 minutes, or until the liquid is nearly evaporated and the rice emerges. Stir once to scrape up the cooked rice from the bottom, and spread in an even layer. Cover and reduce the heat to the lowest possible setting. Cook for 8 more minutes, then arrange the shrimp in an even layer on top of the rice, cover, and let stand off the heat for 10 minutes.
Garnish with the remaining cilantro and the green scallions and serve family style, straight from the pan.