Tea leaves were never meant to be served in a prawn dish, but the combination is as heartily surprising as the person who first fell in love with it.
Longjing tea (Dragon Well tea) with succulent white prawns is a taste of Spring.
How tea leaves became an ingredient in this famous dish is legend. As the Qianlong Emperor (1711-1799) was traveling incognito in Jiangnan (regions south of the Yangtze River), he visited Longjing Township, Hangzhou. A storm forced him into a farmhouse. The hospitable villagers treated their humble-looking guest with newly-plucked Longjing tea leaves brewed with mountain spring water. The sweet, fragrant drink surpassed all beverages in the Emperor’s palace. Dreaming of asking for more, but not daring to (emperors are not accustomed to being refused) he secretly grabbed a handful of leaves and stuffed them under his civilian coat. When the storm was over, the traveller bid farewell.
Captivated by the scenery, oblivious of passing time, Emperor Qianlong toured until sunset. Thirsty and hungry, he strolled into a roadside inn. While ordering fried prawns, he remembered the tea leaves he stole and beckoned the waiter to brew them. When the emperor lifted his coat to get the leaves, he inadvertently exposed his imperial robes. Surprised, the waiter informed the tavernkeeper of the true identity of their guest just as the host was garnishing the prawns. Panicked, he mistook the tea leaves for chopped green onions and sprinkled them into the dish instead.
The waiter served the meal. Chef and waiter were relieved by the Emperor’s shouts of “Delicious!” The tavern owner left his mistake uncorrected and Longjing Prawns have entered the canon of world-renowned Huaiyang cuisine.
300g fresh prawns, 3g newly plucked Longjing tea leaves or other fresh tea leaves, one egg white, 4g potato starch, 1/2 teaspoon Shaoxing rice wine, salt, app. 600g cooking oil.
1. Rinse prawns with running water 10 minutes and dry. Place in bowl. Add small amount salt: gently stir until ingredients become sticky. Pour in egg white: stir, making sure prawns are evenly covered with egg white. Pour in potato starch, stirring until mixture becomes sticky.
2. Brew tea with hot (80 degrees Celsius) water for 30 seconds. Set aside 4 tablespoons of tea and all tea leaves.
3. Heat wok and pour in cooking oil. When oil reaches medium low, turn off the heat. Pour prawn mixture into wok and quickly separate individual prawns. Remove prawns when white and half-cooked: drain oil from prawns. Put wok, with remaining oil, on high heat. Pour prawns, boiled tea leaves, and tea water into wok and stir. Before removing wok from heat, pour rice wine along sides of wok. Stir quickly and serve.
Photography by Hsuyi Shih