The crispiest, lightest shrimp cakes
By Melissa Clark
Whether bite-size Thai shrimp patties spiked with fish sauce, Vietnamese shrimp paste packed onto sugar cane or Southern American shrimp burgers shot through with mayonnaise, savory shrimp cakes are a tasty staple in coastal regions all over the world.
Unsurprisingly, their flavors vary depending on where they’re made. You’ll find them spiced with the likes of white pepper in China, chiles in Latin America or Old Bay seasoning in South Carolina.
Another point of difference is the binder — or lack thereof. Some traditional recipes skip it, mashing and pounding the shrimp until they stick together on their own. This results in a firm, bouncy texture after cooking, with a pleasing chew. Other recipes lace some combination of eggs, flour, cornstarch, bread or cracker crumbs, or rice into the shrimp batter, making for airier, crumblier cakes that are easier to brown when cooked at high heat (usually deep-fried, pan-fried or grilled).
In my somewhat untraditional rendition, I’ve bound the batter with something else entirely: crumbs pulverized from puffed, crunchy rice cakes.
Although this may not seem intuitive, it does make sense, given that both rice and crackers are common binders. Rice cakes just combine the two. You get the mild flavor and gluten-free qualities of the rice along with the crispness of crackers.
Make sure to use the pebbly kind of rice cakes here (either thick or thin), the ones that vaguely resemble popcorn or plastic foam. While you could crush up smooth, waferlike rice crackers for this, the shrimp cakes won’t be quite as airy. The beauty of the rice cakes is how all that air trapped in the puffed rice gives the shrimp cakes a lighter, more ethereal texture.
To make the crumbs, grind the rice cakes in a food processor or blender. Then, the shrimp and aromatics (I use a bracing mix of garlic, basil, cilantro and chiles) can be whirled together in the same container, no need to wash it first.
Chilling the batter for at least an hour (or overnight) makes it easier to form into cakes. And the fried cakes freeze reasonably well, although they won’t be as crisp after thawing. Running them under the broiler helps restore them.
I like to serve these with an herby, chile-flecked mayonnaise that’s sort of like a tartar sauce, but spicier. Then, I nibble them hot from the pan and dream of the beach.
Crispy Shrimp Cakes With Chile-Lime Mayo
Yield: 3 to 4 servings
Total time: 45 minutes
3 to 5 large original or lightly salted rice cakes, or 6 to 10 thin cakes (see Tip)
1 pound shelled large raw shrimp (20 to 24), coarsely chopped
1/4 cup minced shallot (or use onion or scallion)
6 tablespoons chopped cilantro
6 tablespoons chopped basil leaves, more for serving
3 tablespoons minced jalapeño or red chile pepper
2 1/2 teaspoons fish sauce
Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup mayonnaise
Safflower, peanut or grapeseed oil, for frying
1. In the bowl of the food processor (or you can use a blender), add the rice cakes and pulse until you get 1 1/4 cups rice cake crumbs. Return 1/4 cup crumbs to the food processor, reserving the remaining 1 cup for coating the cakes.
2. Add shrimp, shallot, 4 tablespoons each of the cilantro and basil, and 2 tablespoons jalapeño to the crumbs. Add 2 teaspoons fish sauce and a pinch each salt and pepper. Pulse until the mixture forms a coarse, chunky paste. (Be careful not to overprocess; if using a blender, scrape down the sides frequently.) Transfer to a bowl, cover and refrigerate while you make the sauce (at least 15 minutes and up to 24 hours).
3. In a small bowl, whisk together mayonnaise, remaining cilantro, basil, jalapeño and fish sauce. Zest the lime into the bowl, then cut the naked lime into wedges and squeeze in some juice. Salt to taste. Reserve extra lime wedges for serving.
4. Spread remaining 1 cup rice cake crumbs out onto a plate or sheet pan. With wet hands to keep shrimp paste from sticking, form 2 tablespoons of shrimp mixture into a 1/2-inch-thick patty and put it on top of the crumbs. Repeat with remaining shrimp mixture, re-wetting your hands as necessary. Turn the patties over in the crumbs to coat both sides.
5. Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high. Fry patties in batches until golden brown, 3 to 4 minutes per side. Serve shrimp cakes topped with more basil leaves, with chile-lime sauce for dunking and lime wedges on the side for squeezing.
Tips: Original, whole grain or brown rice cakes (either the thick or thin kind) all work well here. If you can’t find rice cakes, use 1 1/4 cups panko or cracker crumbs instead. The cakes won’t be quite as crisp, but they will still taste great.