Last week I had the chance to eat at a popular local Zi Char restaurant in Singapore. At first I thought that Zi Char meant some kind of specialty Chinese cooking, but it's just the opposite. Zi Char, which means "cook and fry," simply refers to homey, all-around Chinese cooking (think the equivalent to the basic diner in America). There are many dishes to choose from and prices are fairly inexpensive. At this Zi Char eating house, the menu was neatly scrolled on the wall—all in Chinese. So the local Singaporeans in our group ordered a slew of dishes to share. Everything was amazing but the prawn paste chicken blew me away. It was one of the most flavorful and unique fried chicken dishes that I'd ever tasted. I had to make it.
For those of you who aren't familiar with prawn paste, I'll explain it briefly. Prawn, or shrimp paste, is a way of preserving shrimp. Shrimp (usually tiny) are left to dry and ferment in the sun and then ground into a paste. This paste is ubiquitous in Southeast asian cooking. Depending on the brand and style—block of paste versus a saucier version—it can taste and smell mildly pungent to rank (think cat breath). This dish doesn't use the block-style belachan but the saucier version known as Hong Kong shrimp paste. I love shrimp paste, but for newbies sometimes the aroma alone can be too much to handle.
If you run towards a whiff of shrimp paste like a bee to flowers, you'll love this dish. In fact, you'll want the flavor to be stronger. If you've never tried shrimp paste, don't give up on this dish—the flavors here are fairly mild. Honest.
Prawn paste chicken is easy. Hacking up the bone-in chicken into smaller pieces is the hardest part, but leaving the bone in it will keep your chicken moist. Make sure to use the right cleaver—you don't want to bust your knife. My chicken came with feet, so I tossed it all into the simple marinade (adapted from Kitchen Tigress) of shrimp paste sauce (I used Lee Kum Kee brand), oyster sauce, a touch of sugar, and water. After letting it sit for about three hours, the chicken is dredged in cornstarch and then you're ready to fry. Twice. The first fry cooks the chicken, the second crisps it up to a deep golden brown. Serve the juicy chicken hot out of the oil with a bowl of chili dipping sauce and some cold beer.