June 27, 2017
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It’s Time for a Coconut Shrimp Revival
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At country clubs and famous restaurants like the Rainbow Room, a unique style of fried shrimp was booming in the 1960s and ’70s. So, what happened?

Of all the summer vacations of my youth, my happiest memories are centered around buffet platters of coconut shrimp. Every summer, I would go to a beach resort with my “rich friend’s” family from the geographic middle of Mississippi to the resorts that line the Emerald Coast beaches of Gulf Shores, Alabama. All week long, we’d lie out in lounge chairs by the pool and listen to the Jimmy Buffett tribute band play “Cheeseburger in Paradise” and “Margaritaville.” Across the pool there sat a buffet table with platters full of fresh fruit, insipid, too-warm cheese cubes, and the star of the show—freshly fried coconut shrimp, lacy and frayed from their shredded coconut coating.

If I was lucky, the shrimp were still fresh from the fryer, and I’d grab a fistful to put on my plate, my hand stinging from the hot grease. Compared with the fruit and cheese next to them, these shrimp were the closest thing to local cuisine the area had, as they were made with huge Gulf shrimp and sweetened with shredded coconut. Eating them was bliss. I’d take a swig of a piña colada from the bar (a treat my friend’s mom would let us indulge in, even though we were underage), and the two slightly chemical-tasting coconut flavors would mingle and dance on my tongue. The piña colada–and probably the shrimp, too–felt like fire going down my gullet, but I knew there was something about that coconut flavor that I loved.

Thus began my love affair with coconut shrimp (and piña coladas, but that’s for another time). A classic holdover from postwar tiki culture, coconut shrimp were a symbol of exotic decadence in the ’60s and ’70s, making their way onto menus at country clubs and swanky cosmopolitan restaurants like the Rainbow Room. Deep-fried shrimp existed before this era, but it’s not difficult to see how an enterprising tiki restaurateur could’ve decided to toss shrimp with sweetened, shredded coconut (another postwar innovation) and deep-fry them to create a crisp, nutty-sweet appetizer that pairs pretty damn well with a fruity rum cocktail.

As a kid, I’d eat them at weddings, pool parties, and especially at Red Lobster on the rare occasion that my family went out for a “nice dinner” to celebrate a milestone. It’s just these types of festive, boozy occasions where coconut shrimp really shine. Even today, I love to have platters of coconut shrimp out for a party, especially since I’m currently in what I like to call the “rum phase” of my life.

Of course, the coconut shrimp I serve now are nothing like the Alabama buffet version that gave me comfort from the vocal stylings of whoever the hell the Jimmy Buffett tribute singer was. Today, I make sure I use local shrimp that I peel and devein myself, rather than reaching for the bag from the freezer aisle of the supermarket. And for the coconut part, I go berserk: I marinate the shrimp in coconut milk spiked with lime juice, zest, and a chopped habanero chile for some heat to counter the coconut’s inherent sweetness.

Next comes a dusting in coconut flour, which is simply very finely ground dried coconut. This dusting helps the eggs adhere, which in turn aids the dried shredded coconut in making a full, thick coating. The final hit of coconut comes from shallow-frying them in unrefined coconut oil, which transfers even more coconut flavor to the shrimp. Jimmy may have been singing about smelling shrimp “beginnin’ to boil,” but if he’d smelled these coconut shrimp back then, he’d have been singing a better tune.

Ingredients

  • Shrimp
  • 1 pound large peeled and deveined shrimp (tails left on)
  • 1 15-ounce can unsweetened coconut milk
  • 1 habanero or Scotch bonnet chile, stemmed and thinly sliced
  • Finely grated zest of 1 lime
  • 1 cup unrefined coconut oil
  • 4 large eggs
  • 4 cups finely shredded dried coconut
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 cups coconut flour
  • Dipping Sauce
  • ½ cup mayonnaise
  • ¼ cup mango chutney, preferably Major Grey’s brand

In Ben Mim’s single ingredient-focused book, Coconuthe cracks open tips and tricks for cooking this tropical fruit into both savory and sweet dishes. 

The basic appeal of coconut shrimp—that of balancing briny shellfish with crunchy sweet-nutty coconut and deep frying the whole thing—is undeniable. But I (and I’m sure many of you) have been a victim of too many coconut shrimp crimes, whether it was at parties with bad catering or in fry-happy airport restaurants. So here’s my attempt at redeeming the brilliance of a simple premise. I use real, unsweetened coconut and fry the shrimp fast so they stay moist inside but crunchy on the outside. It’s the “real deal” because you won’t be able to stop eating them and won’t have to feel bad about it either.

  1. Make the shrimp: In a large bowl, combine the shrimp, coconut milk, chile and lime zest and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate for 2 hours.
  2. In a large nonstick skillet, heat the coconut oil over medium-high heat. In a shallow dish, beat the eggs; in a separate shallow dish, combine the dried coconut, salt and pepper. Place the coconut flour in a third shallow dish. Working in batches and holding the shrimp by the tails, remove the shrimp from the marinade, coat in the coconut flour, dip in the egg and then dredge in the shredded coconut.
  3. Add the shrimp to the skillet and fry, turning once, until golden brown and cooked through, about 4 minutes. Using tongs, remove the shrimp from the oil and transfer to a paper towel–lined plate to drain. Halfway through cooking, if necessary, strain the cooking oil through a fine-mesh sieve to filter out any bits of coconut that begin to burn, then return the oil to the pan and continue cooking the remaining batches.
  4. Make the dipping sauce: In a small bowl, mix the mayonnaise with the chutney until evenly combined.
  5. Serve the shrimp hot with chutney mayo for dipping.

Ben Mims

Ben Mims is a New York-based food writer, recipe developer, and author of Short Stacks Editions: Coconut and the cookbook Sweet & Southern. Previously the kitchen director of Lucky Peach, his work has appeared in Food & Wine, Food Network, Jarry, Saveur, and more.

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