(These were sliced a bit too thick for my liking)
I'm aware that there's only one prawn cracker recipe (repeated in various websites) out there in cyberspace. Here comes the Best Prawn Crackers recipe.
Kwan Aunty was from Sandakan, where the best seafood in Sabah can be had. After eating Kwan Aunty's prawn crackers, I never ate the popular Brunei prawn crackers with the red edge again. In fact, I just don't eat prawn crackers unless they are home-made. Why? Because I know what goes into them and I can imagine that if made on a commercial basis, a lot of unnecessary stuff (color, excessive amount of msg to make up for the lack of prawns, the pregnant fly that flew in...) is added to stretch the quantity since prawns aren't cheap. Home-made crackers just taste much much better but I think most people are so used to the commercial type (it's almost impossible to buy real home-made crackers) they have grown up accustomed to them.
Kwan Aunty's prawn crackers are made on a 1:1 ratio of prawns to tapioca flour and were the best I've ever tasted. Perfecto. Be warned. Prawn crackers are addictive. Once you start on them, you won't stop until it's all gone. Who else makes them like that these days? Me of course, her student, although I confess here I am still far from making very good crackers because I only make them once every few years. And now, because it's traditional to serve and eat prawn crackers during CNY, and because Kwan Aunty, who's no longer here, was kind enough to pass on her recipe for free, so should I pass it to you. Free too.
You (at least I do) need a lot of practice to get your prawn crackers right. You want crackers that puff well (the quality of tapioca flour used, whether the crackers are well-dried, oil is too hot, if cracker is sliced too thick all affect the crackers) and not have hard bits here and there (thickness uneven, not thoroughly dried and other reasons I don't know of). Yes, its practice, practice, practice.
You can stretch the following recipe by adding egg whites or water so the dough can take in more tapioca flour but really for home consumption, I don't believe in scrimping. My friend X ingeniously adds baking powder to the recipe and that makes the crackers puff 3 to 4 times the original size but I find the texture becomes coarser, with more bubbles that cut and make my tongue raw (Wey describes it as "Aunty X's crackers are like those I buy in school, they stick onto my tongue."). I also found the crackers to be oily on the surface, maybe because all that puffing makes the surface thinner and more pervious to the oil. Do not omit the msg. Like all savory snacks, msg will perk the taste up. Just be prepared to drink more water and maybe loose more hair (it's funny how the Chinese Restaurant Syndrome affects different races differently).
Before steaming the prawn crackers dough.
After steaming, the color of the dough will deepen.
Different types of prawns will give different shades of color, some deeper and some lighter. Farmed prawns (what the fishmongers call 'white prawns' and those that you eat in seafood restaurants) usually will give a darker color but I'd advise not to feed your family with that.
Leaving the sliced crackers to dry in the sun.
After drying, crackers will curl and color will deepen. Store in an airtight jar or plastic bag. Can be stored for months if dried well.
Kwan Aunty's Prawn Crackers
600g small prawns (flesh only & de-veined)
600g tapioca starch/flour*
1 heaped t salt
1 t white ground pepper
1/2 level t (or reduce slightly) msg
banana leaves to line steamer
*update 16/1/12: my dough was sticky this year and I didn't want to run out for just a bit of flour so I used potato starch--that's how daring I am! The prawn crackers turned out perfect, lighter and 'looser' in texture, hallejulah! I think I must've added about 100 gm of potato starch to 900gm tapioca/cassava flour and equal amount of minced prawns.
1. The prawns needn't be drained dry. Just wash and put into a machine to mince. Mince the prawns in the machine until fine.
2. Put the prawn mince into your cake mixer, add all the other ingredients and mix using the dough hook for 8 minutes or so. If mixture doesn't come together, add 1/2 T of water. If too soft, add a little bit more tapioca flour.
3. Taste the raw dough. If it's bland, add more seasoning. Remember that after frying, the crackers will taste even less salty. Now put the dough on a clean surface and knead with your hands until dough is very smooth (say 10 minutes) and when you press it with your fingers, it feels like pressing your arm (provided your arm isn't more than 60 years old). Soft yet firm. If dough is hard, wet your hands and knead again. If your dough is too hard/dry, the crackers will have cracks after drying in the sun and they'll taste very dry after frying.
4. Shape dough into two long rolls, pressing and slapping both ends to compact the rolls so there aren't any air bubbles. Lay the rolls on the banana leaf (NO need to oil/grease) which is laid over your steamer in which the water should be boiling. If you can't find banana leaf, just use foil but it won't give that wonderful aroma as it cooks.
5. Steam at medium high (too high and dough will crack) heat for 1 hour 15 minutes or 1 hour if rolls are thinner.Make sure there is a vent in your steamer lid (a bamboo steamer & lid is best) so that the steam does not rise and fall onto the rolls, making the surface bubbled and wet.
6. When rolls are cool, wrap them in tea towels or foil and leave in fridge to firm up. I leave them overnight. The next morning, take rolls out and leave them out 1/2 hour to come to room temperature. Now we come to the part that's hardest for me. Using a mandoline slicer (I don't handle the mandoline well so I take the longer way and slice the rolls with a very sharp knife), cut into thin slices (too thick and they won't puff so well) and lay them on metal sheets/trays to dry directly in the sun. In our tropical sun, it takes two days of drying before the crackers can be fried.
7. Deep-frying crackers takes skill. Use plenty of oil. If oil is too hot or not hot enough, crackers will not expand much. Make sure the whole cracker is submerged in the oil or the areas that aren't will be hard. Good luck.