When I was a young girl, my mother and I lived in Bangkok. My father would come home every other weekend or so from Saigon where he worked for the State Department. I went to school at the International School Bangkok. I took French lessons and learned to play the Thai national anthem on my recorder. The war in Vietnam was raging, the Beatles were playing, and white go-go boots were fashionable (I know, it’s a clue to how old I really am). Much has faded now over so many years, but a few memories from that period are still as sharp as ever. One memory, just as vivid as it happened yesterday, was of one particular dish at one particular meal.
When my dad was home, we went to open-air markets where old women bought birds just to set them free. We would eat green peanuts drenched in salt, and blood-red papayas were heaped into stacks everywhere. We’d walk along crowded streets peering into shops at silk cloth, teak furniture, and art.
One leisurely Sunday afternoon, we walked into an unadorned, heavily air-conditioned restaurant. It was a restaurant geared more for Thai local trade than for tourists. Each of the maybe fifty dining tables was covered in sensible protective plastic. On the table were the usual bowls of fermented fish sauce, hot sliced peppers floating in vinegar, sugar, and deep red chili powder. A bottle of Maggi sat on every table around the room. We were served an appetizer.
The appetizer was a big basket of shrimp toast – a simple dish of pureed shrimp, soy sauce, fresh coriander, sesame oil, and sesame seeds. The pureed shrimp was spread onto one side of a small toast triangle and deep-fried, perhaps in peanut oil. As we sat at the table and my parents chatted about more important things, I began to quietly work my way through the entire basket, squeezing some lime onto a shrimp toast, dipping another into a little chili oil or vinegar.
We left Thailand and returned to the States just in time for Janis Joplin and Angela Davis. The width of blue jean bottoms expanded and then contracted, hair got long and then short again, but the flavors of that shrimp toast always lingered in my memory. After the war ended, slowly but steadily Thai restaurants began to dot the landscape. When visiting a new Thai restaurant, I always ordered the shrimp toast on the menu — I still do. I think it was that first exposure to the flavor combination of soy sauce and sesame oil — with just a splash of lime — that attracted me.
Last year I spent some time in Spain. While there, I developed a serious taste for pimenton, Spanish smoked paprika. What began as a spice curiosity has now become a kitchen essential for me. I put smoked paprika into salmon spreads and hot-smoked soups, egg dishes, and onto potatoes. Now, I’ve added it to my beloved shrimp toast recipe.
I’ve eliminated the basic Asian flavor profile of cilantro, soy, and sesame and updated it with Mediterranean flavors of olive oil, lemon zest, sea salt and pimenton. I added in green onion and flat-leaf parsley. I prefer to sauté the shrimp toasts instead of deep-frying them. As always, I use Alaska seafood and, more specifically in this case, side-stripe shrimp just caught from Prince William Sound. Following is the recipe for my updated Spanish shrimp toasts. They’ve been popular this summer as a snack at lunchtime and an appetizer before dinner.
- ½ pound Alaska side-stripe shrimp, peeled
- 2 tablespoons chopped green onion
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
- 1 teaspoon Spanish smoked paprika
- 1 garlic clove, peeled and minced
- 1 teaspoon lemon zest
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoons Spanish olive oil
- 12 slices French baguette
- 2 teaspoons unsalted butter for frying
- Chop the shrimp up, either by hand or with a food processor.
- Add in the green onion, parsley, paprika, garlic, lemon zest and salt. Add in the olive oil. Mix the shrimp, herb, and spice mixture well.
- Spoon some of the shrimp paste onto a slice of baguette. Repeat with the remaining slices of bread.
- Heat the butter in a medium skillet. Place the baguette slices shrimp-side down. Sauté the shrimp toasts over medium heat for about 2 minutes.
- Turn the bread slices over and toast on the other side for about 2 minutes.
- Serve the shrimp toasts hot with a sprinkle of pimenton and lemon zest on top of each toast. Depending how full you spread the toasts, you might have a small amount of shrimp paste remaining.