Why It Works
- Marinating the shrimp in a mixture of fish sauce and soy sauce gives them a savory boost of flavor.
- A simple batter of rice flour, water, and salt produces crisp, juicy ukoy.
Whenever I see ukoy on the menu at a Filipino restaurant, I can’t resist ordering them. The shrimp and vegetable fritters are traditionally sold by street vendors, and they come in many shapes and sizes, from large, very crisp, family-style fritters to compact individual ones. Unfortunately, I've often ordered ukoy only to be disappointed when a pile of dense, soggy, or flat-tasting fritters shows up at the table. This recipe makes up for every single one of the bad ukoy I've had in the past: crunchy, free-form ukoy made up of plump, seasoned shrimp, bean sprouts, and thinly sliced carrots and sweet potato, everything loosely held together by a light, tempura-like batter, served with a spicy-sour dipping sauce.
It took me quite a bit of trial and error to perfect this recipe. I considered everything from which vegetables to include (and whether to salt them first, to draw out moisture) and how best to prepare the shrimp to include in the fritters (unpeeled? head-on?) to the many different flours that could serve as the basis for the batter.
First, let’s start with the vegetables. Ukoy are made with all kinds of vegetables, including sweet potato, cabbage, squash, green papaya, scallions, carrots, and bean sprouts. After years of consuming ukoy, I narrowed down the vegetables in my ukoy to the trinity of bean sprouts, carrots, and sweet potato. Earthy and hearty, with a slight sweetness, they have complementary textures, and they also act as a foil for the plump cooked shrimp. I tested out salting the vegetables to draw out excess moisture—something that's called for in a couple other recipes out there—but I didn't think it produced a noticeable differences in the texture of the cooked carrots and sweet potatoes (although that's probably because both of them have relatively low water content).
Typically, ukoy are made with head-on, unpeeled shrimp, a practice I despised as a kid, and not just because I thought they looked like giant insects; they make the ukoy difficult to eat (I spent a fair amount of time wrestling the shrimp out of each fritter, removing their heads, and peeling off stuck-on shells). Developing this recipe gave me the opportunity to taste the fritters both ways—with unpeeled, head-on shrimp and with peeled, headless shrimp—and I concluded that ukoy are much easier to eat when made with peeled shrimp, and they're tastier, provided you quickly marinate the shrimp in a potent combination of fish sauce and soy sauce first.
The key to superb ukoy lies in nailing its texture; the fritters should be crisp, but they shouldn’t shatter as soon as you bite into them. In order to get that perfect texture, I tried cornstarch, all-purpose flour, instant flour (pre-cooked and dried flour), and rice flour, as well as various combinations thereof. Cornstarch batters produced fritters that were much too light and crispy; all-purpose flour batters yielded cakey ones; and instant flour batters produced an unappealing fried flavor. Rice flour batters, the winner, delivered ultra-crunchy ukoy with a bit of heft.
I also tested the effects of using club soda in place of tap water for the batter. The carbonation is said to help aerate the batter and inhibit gluten formation (in wheat-flour batters), which leads to a lighter fritter. However, as with the pre-salting vegetables, I didn’t find that this step significantly improved the texture of the ukoy.
Once the battered vegetables are ready to go, I recommend building each ukoy on a large spoon: first place a mound of battered vegetables on the spoon, add a marinated shrimp, then place another mound of battered vegetables on top and press down to form a compact package. You can then use another spoon to slide the formed ukoy directly into the hot oil. The fritters will come apart slightly as they fry (a few strands of bean sprouts will inevitably escape), but don’t worry: they'll hold together to form a loose web of intertwined shrimp and vegetables.
Ukoy are best enjoyed hot, with a brief plunge into the sharp, vinegary dipping sauce. I promise they’ll disappear fast.
- For the Dipping Sauce:
- 1/2 cup (120ml) cane vinegar
- 2 teaspoons (10ml) fish sauce
- 2 medium garlic cloves, minced
- 1 bird’s eye chile, stemmed and thinly sliced
- For the Ukoy Fritters:
- 8 large shrimp (about 4 ounces; 115g), peeled and deveined
- 2 teaspoons (10ml) fish sauce
- 2 teaspoons (10ml) soy sauce
- 6 ounces (about 2 cups; 170g) mung bean sprouts
- 4 small carrots (about 8 ounces; 225g), peeled and cut into 2 1/2-inch-long by 1/4-inch-thick matchsticks
- 1 small sweet potato (about 8 ounces; 225g), peeled and cut into 2 1/2-inch-long by 1/4-inch-thick matchsticks
- 9 fluid ounces (265ml) ice-cold water
- 6 ounces (1 cup; 170g) white rice flour
- 1 teaspoon (4g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt plus more for seasoning; for table salt, use half as much by volume
- 5 cups (1.2L) vegetable oil or other neutral oil for frying
For the Dipping Sauce: In a small bowl, stir together vinegar, fish sauce, garlic, and chile; set aside.
For the Ukoy Fritters: In a separate small bowl, combine shrimp, fish sauce, and soy sauce; set aside to marinate for at least 10 minutes and up to 30 minutes.
In a large bowl, combine bean sprouts, carrots, and sweet potato, and toss to combine. In a medium bowl, whisk together water, rice flour, and salt until smooth. Using a rubber spatula, add batter to large bowl with vegetable mixture, and fold together until vegetables are evenly coated.
Heat oven to 200°F (95°C). Set a wire rack in a rimmed baking sheet. In a Dutch oven, heat oil over medium-high heat to 375°F (190°C). To form ukoy fritters, use your fingers to mound roughly 1/2 cup (85g) of the vegetable mixture in single layer in a large heatproof spoon. Nestle 1 shrimp in the center, top with a second 1/2 cup (85g) of vegetable mixture, and gently press down to form a 3-inch disc. Using another large heatproof spoon or spatula, carefully slide ukoy off spoon into oil (don’t worry if the ukoy separates slightly during frying), then form a second ukoy, and slide into oil. Fry until golden brown on bottom side, about 2 minutes. Using a slotted metal spatula, carefully flip ukoy over and continue to fry until golden brown on second side, about 2 minutes. Transfer to prepared baking sheet, season lightly with salt, then transfer to oven to keep warm.
Using a spider skimmer, skim any browned bits of batter from oil, and discard. Return oil to 375°F (190°C) and repeat process with remaining vegetable mixture and shrimp.
Transfer ukoy to a plate and serve immediately with dipping sauce.
Dutch oven, slotted spatula, spider skimmer, rimmed baking sheet, and wire rack
Make-ahead and Storage
Ukoy are best served and enjoyed immediately.
The dipping sauce can be prepared in advance and refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 1 week.