Laziji-Style Chongqing Lobster (Longxia, 龙虾)
A Mala Fish Fry
We all know what it’s like to get inspired by a dish in a restaurant and feel you have to figure out its secrets for yourself so you can make it anytime the craving hits. My latest such obsession is Chongqing Lobster—though in this case I didn’t even eat it, but merely read about it in a review of New York’s new DaDong restaurant. But when I read this idea—Chongqing chicken where the chicken is replaced by lobster—I couldn’t get it out of my mind. How brilliant! The only thing better than lobster is deep-fried lobster. And the only thing better than deep-fried lobster is deep-fried lobster covered in fried garlic and Sichuan-pepper chili oil .
The question was how to make it. The New York Times’s Pete Wells did not care one bit for the duck at the first U.S. branch of the venerable Beijing duck house, but he had this to say about the lobster: “My favorite dish may be the seafood variation on the Sichuan classic Chongqing chicken called Hot and Spicy Lobster: a cut-up lobster stir-fried with nearly enough dried chiles to fill a pillowcase.”
I can do that! My house is bursting with Sichuan chilies, and the fat red lantern chilies would be perfect for this “pillowcase” overload. I have my own tried-and-true recipes for Chongqing chicken (here and here), so I would base it on those.
But I didn’t know how to fry shellfish the Chinese way. So first I went to YouTube and found this video of a Chinese cook making a homestyle version of fried lobster, which was very helpful. She also shows how to cut up a whole lobster for use in this dish, cracking each shell as you go, should you be so lucky as to have access to quality live lobster. Of course Chinese chefs would use live lobsters, but if you are landlocked as we are, you can use lobster tails and supplement with scallops or shrimp to keep the cost down. I used lobster tails because it’s what I could get without high-dollar mail order, but it also spared me the dilemma of having to butcher the lobster the way Chinese cooks do, from the live state. (How do you deal with this? Let me know in the comments.)
As I was mulling this recipe over a few days, I happened to watch David Chang’s new Netflix show Ugly Delicious (which I very highly recommend). In the “Fried Rice” episode, where Chang grapples with the question of why Chinese food gets less respect in America than European cuisines like Italian, he eats a Cantonese-style salt-and-pepper lobster and then recreates it in his kitchen. While it does look delicious, he uses a wet batter and very little spice, neither of which appeal to me, so I stuck with the dry corn starch dusting and mala flavoring of Chongqing cooking. The corn starch is just there to lend a crisp, light coating, give the sauce something to cling to and protect the delicate, pillowy lobster meat.
While deep-frying is definitely off-putting, this is about as easy as it gets, since you deep-fry each batch for literally only 2 to 3 minutes, meaning you are done frying in 5 minutes. The fat fish nuggets then get a quick bath in the chili oil and you’re done! If you mix shellfish types, the shrimp may take even less time than that, and the shells on smaller shrimp will be edible, so you won’t lose any of that lip-smacking sauce. I haven’t yet tried scallops in this dish, but think they would be divine. Though let’s be real, the lobster is the star, so the more you use the more delicious and decadent this dish will be.
Chongqing lobster also gives you another chance to use green Sichuan peppercorns. I’m always telling people to use these with fish as the Sichuanese do, but I don’t have that many recipes with them. The green Sichuan pepper, which is so fresh and lemony and tangy, complements the lobster perfectly. I recommend making a salt with it, in a ratio of 1 part ground Sichuan pepper to 2 parts kosher or sea salt. Use it as a finishing salt on the dish, but then put some out in dipping bowls so those who love it can accentuate each bite.
I should mention that I made this with two lobster tails and a half-pound of large shrimp as a dish for Fongchong and me. Because my 90-pound girl eats like a sumo wrestler, this amount was just a snack for her. You can increase the recipe for more seafood by just increasing the sauce ingredients proportionally.
I should also mention that contrary to Chongqing lobster’s fiery looks, the recipe as written is not that spicy hot. The red lantern chilies are left whole—meant to grab attention with their looks not their heat. Likewise, there is only a small amount of ground chilies and Sichuan pepper in the oil. Garlic plays a major role, but I didn’t want to overpower the lobster with heavy heat. The green Sichuan pepper salt served at table is for those (like me) who want a buzzy-tart counterpoint to the sweet lobster.
Laziji-Style Chongqing Lobster (Longxia, 龙虾)
- 2 teaspoons green Sichuan pepper powder
- 4 teaspoons kosher or sea salt
- 1 pound lobster tails (or one whole lobster or mix of lobster, scallop, shrimp)
- small bowl of corn starch
- canola or peanut oil (enough to deep fry)
- 5 to 6 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
- 1 tablespoon minced ginger
- 1 tablespoon Sichuan ground chilies
- 3 cups red lantern chilies
- 1 teaspoon green Sichuan peppercorns
- 1 tablespoon sesame oil
- cilantro sprigs (optional)
- Make Sichuan pepper salt: Toast a couple tablespoons green Sichuan peppercorns in an oven or dry skillet until fragrant but not browned. Let cool, then grind to a coarse powder in a spice or coffee grinder. Sift out any large husks that don't break down. Combine 2 teaspoons Sichuan pepper powder with 4 teaspoons fine kosher or sea salt and mix well.
- Prep seafood: Use kitchen shears to cut through the bottom shell of the lobster tails, splitting them open top to bottom but leaving intact. Cut each tail into large chunks. (If using a whole lobster, cut into large pieces or have fish monger do for you, cracking each shell so that sauce can seep in when cooking and so it's not necessary to crack at table.) Use shears to cut shrimp shells along back and remove vein, but leave shell on. Leave scallops whole. Dry all seafood pieces well, then dredge them in a bowl of corn starch to lightly but thoroughly coat each piece.
- Heat oil in a wok or deep saucepan to 375°. Use enough oil to cover or nearly cover the pieces. Working in batches, add shellfish pieces to hot oil and deep fry, moving gently so they don't stick together. The oil will bubble furiously and splatter, so be careful (a deep sauce pan helps with this). Make sure to retain heat at 375°, or a furious bubble, and cook pieces for about 2 to 2½ minutes, until they are crisp and just starting to turn gold. Remove to paper towels.
- Discard frying oil, clean wok, and return to high heat. When hot, add 4 tablespoons oil. Lower heat to medium and add garlic slices. Stir-fry until they are soft, then add ginger and Sichuan ground chilies and cook briefly. Add the whole Sichuan chilies and Sichuan peppercorns and stir-fry briefly. Do not brown. Add back the shellfish and mix thoroughly in the sauce. Drizzle sesame oil around the outside of wok and stir again. Sprinkle lightly with Sichuan pepper salt, stir final time and plate. Garnish with cilantro, and serve with green Sichuan pepper salt as a dip.
what a great combo of flavors, looks amazing!
Thank you! I hope you’ll try it!
I made it last night with both lobster tails and shrimp. It was really good! My husband, however, asked not to bother with shrimp next time : ) Lobster was clearly a winner.
My question is about scallops. Would you deep fry them as well if using?
Could you use regular Szechuan pepper powder instead of green?
Definitely! (Apologies for the slow response.)