Puffy, light, cloudy. These are only some of the words I’ve heard used to describe the crisp crackers that one often finds on the side of fried or roast dishes in Chinese restaurants. We call them kropek in the Philippines. According to Wikipedia:
… it is known as krupuk or kerupuk in Indonesia; keropok in Malaysia; … bánh phồng tôm in Vietnam and xiapian (“prawn chips”) in Chinese. It is also known as kroepoek in the Netherlands through its colonial link with Indonesia, and another of Nederlands’ former colonies, Suriname.
The phonetic similarity among Southeast Asian languages is interesting, isn’t it? But that’s just an aside. The thing about the English translation for these starch-based snacks as prawn crackers or shrimp puffs is that, in Asia, the flavors are not limited to prawns or shrimps. There are squid, onion, garlic, fish, crab and every imaginable flavor added to starch to make the crackers. They come in so many colors too.
The crackers can be bought ready-to-eat or ready-to-cook. It might seem idiotic to write a tutorial about frying crackers but there is actually an art to it. The wrong temperature, the wrong amount of oil and the wrong size of the cooking vessel can prevent the crackers from puffing sufficiently.
That’s how the crackers look right out of the pouch. Who’d imagine they’d puff to more than three times their size after frying, eh? But they do if they are fried correctly. And they shouldn’t be dripping with oil either.
Start with a large frying vessel. A wok is always ideal. Although you should fry only a few pieces at a time, the cooking vessel should be large so that the puffed crackers can be easily scooped out with a spider. You can’t maneuver the spider inside a too-small frying pan. The cooking pan should also be deep enough to contain oil that is at least three inches deep. No, you will not ingest all that oil. That’s just to make sure that when the crackers are dropped in, every part is submerged in oil.
So, let’s fry some kropek. Large and deep frying pan. At least three inches of oil. Heat the oil. The temperature is very important. To make sure that you have the correct temperature, drop in one cracker first. If it stays at the bottom, the oil isn’t hot enough. If it turns dark before you can scoop it out, the oil is too hot. So, adjust the fire and wait a minute or two for the temperature of the oil to adjust accordingly.
Most people drop the cracker directly into the oil. They wait for the crackers to float, all puffed, and scoop them out. The thing is, the frying takes only seconds. And there is a hair’s breadth between the time that the crackers are perfectly cooked and the time when they start to burn. If you aren’t fast enough gathering them all with a spider so that you can lift them out in a single scoop, the ones that get left behind will burn before you can dump the ones you have gathered into a bowl and bring the spider back into the oil again. Boo hoo.
This is how Speedy fries crackers. Super smart way.
When the oil is hot, he drops the crackers into the spider then submerges the spider in the hot oil.
He wiggles the spider as the crackers start to puff to make sure they separate and fry evenly.
He keeps wiggling the spider until the crackers are fully puffed.
By the time the crackers are done, he doesn’t have to waste time gathering them to scoop them out. He just needs to lift the spider off the oil. No risk of burning the crackers.
An alternative to the wok / spider combo is a sauce pan / noodle basket combo. A noodle basket, sold in groceries, is really for dumping noodles into boiling water to reheat them. Or, in the case of fresh Asian egg noodles, to soften them. Same principle. So that the noodles won’t stay too long in the hot water and risk getting them soggy, they are dipped in hot water for only the exact amount of time they need to get heated through. You can use a noodle basket and a narrower (but still) deep pan for frying kropek.