Though the Southern Californian world of suburbs and culs-de-sac can often blend into a stucco haze of sameness, hidden in the squat strip malls and housing developments is surprising diversity.
I grew up in northern San Diego County, where a third of my high school’s student body was Asian American, mostly first generation. Though many, if not most, of my friends had parents who were born in China, through both strange coincidence and complicated racial dynamics, my family had only eaten at the most inauthentic of local Chinese restaurants.
When my friends and I discussed our favorite dishes, they laughed at what my family ordered at restaurants and explained what they ate at home. I convinced my friend, whose parents are from Hubei Province, to invite me over for “a real Chinese meal,” cooked by her dad.
The main course was shrimp. Like many Americans, I was only familiar with them in their fleshy pink forms, often arranged around a bowl of cocktail sauce or in a pasta dish. So when my friend’s dad brought over a steaming dish of whole shrimp—complete with eyes and antennae and tails and little feet—I tried to act unfazed. After all, I had just eaten what is not quite appetizingly translated as “wood ear” (木耳, a type of edible tree fungus that, well, looks like an ear) and was pleasantly surprised, so why not?
Armed with a budding anthropologist’s sense that taste and disgust are partly cultural, I figured that it was “more authentic” to eat the entire shrimp as it was, and that perhaps the legs and shell were just underappreciated in the West.
So I bit the whole thing in two, chewed, and swallowed—and immediately started choking, as the rough shell fragments scratched the entire length of my esophagus.
My hosts initially checked to make sure that I wasn’t dying, but when I managed to look at them through coughs and watering eyes and explain what happened, they started laughing hysterically.
From then on I became “the friend who ate the shell.”
Please enjoy this simple recipe from the Tan family. And, please, make sure to peel the shells before you eat—unless you want a nickname.
12 oz shrimp
Light soy sauce
- Wash the shrimp and remove the legs, but leave head, tail, and shell intact.
- Marinate for an hour in a mixture of light soy sauce and cooking wine in 2:1 proportions, with generous slices of ginger and garlic.
- Drain them, and then in a pan, heat up some cooking oil, add some garlic and ginger slices, and sauté the shrimp until both sides are red.
- Salt to taste.
Alex Warburton is the assistant logistics coordinator for the 2014 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Though he spent a year in Turkey on a Fulbright grant and will study Javanese gamelan music in Indonesia next year, he unfortunately has still never been to China.