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Walnut shrimp is a Chinese-American dish that combines lightly breaded and fried shrimp with candied walnuts and a creamy, mayonnaise-based sauce. The dish is often found in the chef's specials section of Chinese restaurant menus. It is, however, typically made with ingredients that can be easily located in any American grocery store. Despite the fact that it is often known as honey walnut shrimp, not all versions of this dish actually contain honey. Some restaurants offer variations on the dish by swapping out or adding different ingredients.
This dish gets its name from the key ingredient of candied walnuts. Although it is possible to purchase candied walnuts, many people find that freshly prepared walnuts are crispier and fresher tasting. The crunchier the walnuts, the greater the contrast to the shrimp and its rich sauce. Typical recipes for walnut shrimp include instructions for making candied walnuts, which usually involves boiling the walnuts in a simple syrup and then deep frying until crispy. Honey is not used in the preparation of the walnuts.
The shrimp is often very lightly breaded and then deep-fried. Some recipes use shrimp that have been battered or rolled in breadcrumbs, though this may distract from the crunchy walnuts. In many cases, the shrimp is simply rolled in cornstarch or in a corn starch–egg white mixture. The shrimp is then deep-fried and drained. As walnuts can be expensive and the candying process can be time-consuming, honey walnut shrimp is sometimes priced higher than many other dishes on a Chinese restaurant's menu.
A typical sauce used to prepare walnut shrimp is quite simple and is made by combining condensed milk with mayonnaise. Additions to the sauce may include butter, lemon juice, and additional sweetening such as sugar or honey. The sauce may or may not be cooked depending on the recipe. Many recipes called for the shrimp to be tossed with the candied walnuts and then topped with the sauce.
Both Chinese restaurants and home cooks prepare different variations on this dish. In some cases, cooks may add additional items to the walnut shrimp sauce, such as fresh or grilled pineapple. Another variation on the dish is honey walnut chicken, in which breaded and deep-fried chicken is substituted for the shrimp. This alternative works well for those who cannot or do not wish to eat shrimp. Chicken is also typically much less expensive than shellfish, making it an economical alternative for those who enjoy this sweet, rich dish but cannot afford the cost of regularly cooking with seafood.
A Chinese friend of mine gave me a honey walnut shrimp recipe, because I do some catering and a client wanted it served at his wedding. I have to say it was a little labor intensive at first, because I had to shell all of the walnuts and split them very carefully. It's a dish that relies heavily on presentation. The sauce was also a challenge for me, since it wanted to break if I got it too warm.
I managed to pull it off, but I can see why a lot of restaurants wouldn't want to put a complicated and expensive dish like that on their menus.
There's one Asian restaurant in my city that serves honey walnut shrimp, and I order it about once a year. It is one of the most expensive items on the menu, but I enjoy every last bite of it. I call it "shrimp candy", because the sauce and the candied walnuts are both so sweet. The fried shrimp are very lightly battered, but they still have a nice crunch.
The only other Chinese entree I've had that comes close to the goodness of honey walnut shrimp is coconut shrimp. It is also lightly fried and served in a sweetened coconut milk sauce.
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