Last year my wife and I spent a little over a week in Canoa Quebrada, a tiny beach town in the far North of Brazil an hour east of Fortaleza. Our secondary reason for being there was the wedding of our Brazilian friend and his Colombian wife, but our real reason was the food. Ok, my real reason was the food. The salty dried beef known as carne do sol, the poofy, cheesy pão de qeuijo, the excellent grilled beef and sausages, the pig ear and belly-studded feijoada, the fresh caught, deep-fried fish, and the seemingly endless string of wood-fired pizzas (who knew?).
My wife would have been happy with just the beach and an endless pile of camarão a alho, the Brazilian version of garlic shrimp. We'd step into a shack-like restaurant, and before the first caipirinhas even landed on the table, we'd be faced with a pile of the diminutive ruby-red, briny, thin-shelled gems, complete with head and legs, glistening in olive oil and fried garlic.
As with a lot of coastal seafood-based cuisines, the technique here is exceedingly simple, relying only on the freshest, best quality shrimp.
You can use frozen shrimp (go for shell-on and peel as you eat), but if you can find a market that sells live shrimp, you'll be far better off. Check out your local Chinatown if you have one; chances are someone's got them. Small shrimp (about 25-35 to a pound) are best for this. The goal is to cook them through as fast as possible so that they stay nice and sweet and tender. Large shrimp will overcook on the exterior using this method before they get a chance to cook through to the middle.
Pro-tip: Never buy "fresh" shrimp unless they are alive or very obviously recently dead (head on, a few still twitching). 99 percent of the time, what you are buying is simply frozen shrimp that have been thawed out at the store. If you can't get live shrimp, you are better off buying frozen shrimp and thawing them out yourself.
There's nothing more to the recipe other than garlic, oil, salt, and shrimp, but there's a little more to the technique. Garlic is a multi-layered beast. I offers a wide range of flavors from pungent and spicy to sweet and mellow depending on how long it's cooked. To get the best garlic flavor into the dish, I add the garlic in two distinct phases. The majority of the garlic I'll slowly cook in the olive oil until it's sweet and golden brown. The rest of the garlic I'll save and add later on with the shrimp, cooking it just long enough to take off some of the pungent bite.
The end result is sweet and complex. Real finger-licking fare.
P.S. Do suck the sweet juices out of the shrimp heads as you make your way through the pile.
Get The Recipe!
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.