Prawn Rice Noodle Salad/ Kerabu Mi Fun

Friday, 15 November 2013

This is a dish that my grandmother used to make all the time that everyone always raved about. I only remember ever eating it once a few years ago - one of my cousins had asked, or maybe just commented in passing, about this dish. A few days later, the dish was produced at a family gathering, and all the adults got mad at the cousin for making Grandma slave away in the kitchen. After that no one said anything in front of her again, so I never got to try it.

"Kerabu" apparently means salad. I never knew what it meant, just that that was the name of the dish. It is a Malay word, and Google offers a range of meanings: bean sprout salad, lots of ingredients mixed together with a dressing (which is what salad is, no?), there is a dish called Nasi Kerabu (nasi = rice) and the picture is of blue rice. So, I don't know what it means exactly, only that it is delicious. Mi fun, by the way, is the Cantonese word for vermicelli rice noodles. So Kerabu Mi Fun = rice noodle salad.

This is apparently a Nyonya (Peranakan Chinese - descendants of 15th century Chinese immigrants in Indonesia) recipe, incorporating both Chinese and Muslim flavours, with Thai influences. How multicultural!

My grandma's recipe seemed super easy when she told me: prawns, rice noodles, celery and coconut with a dressing of shallots, lime juice and belacan (spicy shrimp paste). I thought carefully about it and it was just too unbelievable. The end result definitely had a lot more elements in it. So this recipe isn't the easy one she told me. It's not complicated, but it has a lot of elements and does take a while to prepare. And it's definitely worth it. (Even though I did have a friend who commented that salad is not worth spending time making. But, I don't think this is actually a salad... Is it? What makes a salad salad?)

For the noodle salad
serves 4-6 (depending on how hungry everyone is)
  • 500g large prawns (with shells - very important)
  • 1 large squid tube, or 2 small ones
  • 1 carrot
  • 2 stalks celery (you're supposed to use ginger flower, but my grandma substituted it with celery, because ginger flower is nowhere to be found here!)
  • 3 shallots, or 1/2 cup fried shallots
  • 1 large red onion
  • 3 tbsp vinegar
  • 1 tbsp sugar
  • 2 red chillies
  • 200g bean sprouts
  • 1 cup desiccated coconut
  • 1/4 cup coriander leaves
  • 1/4 cup mint leaves
  • 3 stalks scallions
  • rice vermicelli noodles
For the dressing.
  • 3 tbsp sugar (ideally you'd use palm sugar/ Gula Melaka, but I didn't have any)
  • 2 limes
  • 3 tbsp fish sauce
  • I tbsp olive oil
  • 3 red chillies
  • 3 birds eye chillies
  • 1 small piece of ginger
  • 2 stalks lemongrass
  • 6 kaffir lime leaves
  • 15 tiny dried shrimp
  • 2 tbspn belacan (spicy shrimp paste available at Asian grocers)
Fill a big pot with water and boil the prawns, shells and all. When the water comes to a boil and the shells float, remove the prawns. Keep the liquid. Set prawns aside and when they are cool enough to handle, shell and devein them. Make sure all the poo is gone. Then slice the prawns in half, lengthwise. Keep the heads and shells, but throw away the poo. Put the shells back into the water and turn it back on to simmer.

Boiled; shelled; halved.

While waiting for your prawns to cool, prepare your other ingredients.

Slice the squid. It's slimy. Then put them in the pot with the prawn shells and let it come slowly to a boil. When the squid rings are cooked, remove them.

Raw; cooked.

Julienne the carrot.  Halve the celery, lengthwise, and then slice thinly.

If you haven't got fried shallots, which are available at any Asian grocery store, here's how to make your own. I actually much prefer it. I suggest doing lots at a time, because, why not, and you'll always have some on hand. Finely slice the shallots. I used the thinnest setting on the mandolin. The trick is to get the shallots completely dry (or as dry as possible). You can do it in the oven on very low. I did it the old school way - leaving it out in the sun to dry. I did these in the beginning, so by the time I finished prepping everything, which took a while, they were ready. Once the shallots are dry, fry them til they are crisp and golden. Then drain them on paper towels to get rid of the oil. You can store any leftovers in an airtight container.

Freshly sliced; dried; fried.

Finely slice the red onion. Yes, my picture is of shallots, because I didn't have a red onion, so if you haven't got one either then use a shallot, or two. I think it would work better with red onions because of the next step: marinade the slices in 3 tbsp vinegar and 1 tbsp sugar (essentially, pickling the shallot/onion). It turns pink.

Toast the coconut by heating it in a pan on low, until it smells delicious and turns this lovely golden brown colour.
Straight from the packet; golden and toasted and delicious.

Thinly slice the coriander, chilli, mint, shallots, scallions, lemongrass, and kaffir lime leaves. You can leave the ginger in a little knob.
Ginger; kaffir lime; chili; coriander; mint; scallions.

I use this funny giant vegetable peeler I got in Vietnam to cut the lemongrass. Lemongrass is quite thick and stringy and can be really tough to cut. So use the sharpest knife you've got.

These bean sprouts cost me 99 cents. The whole bag. I only used half. My family is picky and likes the roots removed. So here are the nice, clean sprouts. Away from the yucky roots. You don't have to do this if you haven't got a fussy little brother.

Sprouts; de-rooted; roots.

The liquid with the prawn shells should still be simmering on low, by the way, and it should be smelling delicious. You can top it up with more water if the water gets low.

Make the dressing. Combine the lime juice, sugar and fish sauce in a bowl.

Sugar; fish sauce; lime juice

Soak the dried shrimp in a bowl with some of the prawn broth. When they've softened, pound them in a mortar and pestle, or if you're lazy you can chop them up really finely.

Heat the oil and fry the lemongrass until it softens. It doesn't have to be completely soft; it should take about 5-6 minutes. Then add the chillies, lime, ginger, ground shrimp and the belacan. Belacan is a shrimp paste that is used in South East Asian cuisine. It has many names in different countries. When it all starts to smell delicious, add in two tablespoons of your prawn broth. Lower heat to a simmer.

Belacan; lime juice; all mixed together in a saucepan.

Now you're going to be wondering what that prawn broth is for. We're going to use it now. There should be quite a bit left in the pot. Remove the shells, you can discard them now. Put in the bean sprouts and bring to a boil. (I like my sprouts soft and cooked, but if you like yours crunchy you can leave out this step or alternatively, just dunk them into the pot for a few seconds.) As soon as the water comes to a boil, lower the heat, remove the sprouts immediately and set aside to drain.

Open up your packet of rice noodles, and put them into the simmering liquid until the noodles soften. Doing it in the prawn broth means the noodles will absorb all that delicious flavor. When the noodles are adequately softened to your liking, remove and drain. Now is probably a good time to turn off the heat of your chili and lemongrass mixture.

Sprouts; rice noodles; cooked.

Reserve a small bowl of the broth for extra dressing - you'll probably need it. I keep the whole pot to use as stock for other meals, you can even freeze it.

Mix your two parts of the dressing together...

 Lime juice/sugar/fish sauce + a few tablespoons of the prawn broth; belacan/chili/lemongrass/kaffir lime/ginger

Now for the assembly. This part is relatively simple. Use a very large bowl and add the noodles. They will be quite dry so here is where you want to add in some of that reserved prawn broth, just to loosen it up a little. I also added some garlic oil, just because it was there. A tablespoon is fine, you can use olive or chili or any other vegetable oil. This makes the noodles easier to mix in with the other stuff.

Add the carrot, the pickled onion (just remove the onion and keep the liquid for a second), scallions, herbs, chili, celery and the toasted coconut.

Soak the prawns and calamari in the pink vinegar for a few seconds before adding to the noodles. Toss well with half of the dressing and top with the fried shallots.

Drizzle the extra dressing on top....

Serve. And enjoy.

I promise you: this is so delicious. My family (there are 4 of us) finished this entire serving in one sitting. And it's so pretty to look at as well. I'm staring at these photos and feeling hungry.

xx gee

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