Honey walnut shrimp is the Chinese takeout staple too tasty for home cooks to ignore

Illustration for article titled Honey walnut shrimp is the Chinese takeout staple too tasty for home cooks to ignore
Photo: Kevin Pang

Honey walnut shrimp is a culinary miracle. Of course, the idea of fried seafood dunked in a creamy dip extends beyond Cantonese cooking tradition. But then some enterprising chef decided, one day, to toss fried shrimp with a sweet mayonnaise glaze. By doing so, this chef struck upon the pleasures of the simultaneously crispy-creamy sensation. Not satisfied with stopping there, the dish gets augmented with gnarls of crunchy walnuts.

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As much as I love exploring the Chinese cooking canon, honey walnut shrimp was never a dish I aspired to learn. Carryout versions were generally subpar, as that crucial texture got lost in transport. It’s delicious when served at a restaurant, hot and crispy. It never felt like “home cooking,” rather a dish best left for professionals to prepare. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

In fact, of all the Cantonese dishes I’ve mastered, honey walnut shrimp is perhaps the easiest and quickest to make. You candy the walnuts, marinate the shrimp, fry it, toss it in the glaze, and dinner is served. This continued in a long list of dishes with a method that belies its restaurant menu-caliber status (a list including braised oxtails, summer corn soup, and grilled whole fish).

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A few cooking notes before we begin:

  • For crying out loud, buy the freshest shrimp you can. Frozen shrimp from a bag is a non-starter. Pre-peeled and deveined shrimp are... fine, though I’ve experienced mixed results. If you can buy and peel shrimp yourself, pain in the ass it may be, it will make all the difference in the world.
  • I’ve consumed many plates of honey walnut shrimp in my life, and have noticed one crucial difference between decent and great renditions. The really excellent versions candy their walnut, while the lazier ones won’t. It amplifies the sweetness and provides additional crunch to the dish. Don’t skip this step.
  • Turns out I really love the flavor of lemon in this dish. The problem was adding too much lemon juice thins out the glaze. The solution was evident: Grating zest from a whole lemon. The added citrus fragrance smells and tastes lovely in the dish.
  • A variation that some Cantonese cooks opt for is using Miracle Whip instead of mayonnaise. Truth be told, people in Hong Kong use Miracle Whip and mayonnaise interchangeably, and prefer the former. Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.

Illustration for article titled Honey walnut shrimp is the Chinese takeout staple too tasty for home cooks to ignore
Photo: Kevin Pang
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Honey Walnut Shrimp

Serves 2

Shrimp

  • 1/2 lb. shrimp, the freshest you can find, peeled and deveined
  • 2 tsp. Shaoxing cooking wine (or dry sherry)
  • Salt and white pepper
  • 1 egg white
  • 2 cups cornstarch

Candied walnuts

  • 1/2 cup walnuts, halved or pieces
  • 1 Tbsp. butter
  • 1 Tbsp. honey

Glaze

  • 4 Tbsp. mayonnaise or Miracle Whip
  • 1 Tbsp. condensed milk
  • 1.5 Tbsp. lemon juice
  • 1 heaping tsp. honey
  • Zest from 1 lemon

First, marinate your shrimp in a bowl. Add in a pinch of salt and white pepper (I really don’t suggest black pepper, as this burns when fried), the Shaoxing wine (or sherry), and the egg white. Combine well and place in the fridge as you handle the candied walnuts next.

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In a nonstick skillet, add in your tablespoon of butter over medium heat. When the butter begins to foam, whisk in the tablespoon of honey. When butter and honey are combined, add in the walnuts and let the syrup work its magic for 2-3 minutes. In the meantime, line a baking sheet with parchment paper. When the walnuts look nice and glossy, carefully dump them onto the parchment in a single layer and let cool.

Illustration for article titled Honey walnut shrimp is the Chinese takeout staple too tasty for home cooks to ignore
Photo: Kevin Pang
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Have two cups of cornstarch in a bowl ready for dredging.

Fill a deep saucepan, wok, or small Dutch oven with canola or neutral-tasting oil to about 2" depth. Turn on the stovetop and heat the oil to 325 degrees Fahrenheit.

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While the oil is getting to temperature, make the sauce. Whisk together mayonnaise, condensed milk, lemon juice, honey, and lemon zest.

The oil should be nearing 325 degrees by now. Take the marinated shrimp from the fridge, and add a few at a time into the cornstarch dredge. Shake off excess corn starch, and carefully place shrimp into hot oil. Try not to crowd the frying vessel; you’ll likely fry the shrimp in two batches.

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The shrimp will take about 2-3 minutes to cook through. The cornstarch coating won’t turn dark; it’ll appear pale and golden. When it looks magnificently crisp, take out the shrimp onto an elevated rack to cool.

Finally, add the fried shrimp into the glaze and toss. Quickly place onto serving platter, and artfully stud the shrimp with the candied walnuts. Serve with rice.

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Kevin Pang was the founding editor of The Takeout, and director of the documentary For Grace.

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DISCUSSION

DUDE! So good to “see” you! And thanks so much for this. One of my favorites. Aldi has Tiger shrimp - they’re frozen but I bet they’d work. I do wish I had better access to fresh - that I trusted.