Noodles with prawns, leek and lotus (or potato)

Japanese stir-fried noodles with prawns, leek and lotus root
I’ve written a little about ‘supper’ before … What does it even mean?! I just like the word, and think it goes with Christmas trees, vintage tunes and fancy drinks. Simple but beautiful dinners with nibbles and dessert either side. Australia doesn’t have snow in December, but we have all the produce of summer, no rules, and the flexibility to make Christmas whatever we want. I think many of us make different food every year, on the whim of whatever we feel like. I know of some local people who might be making nasi ulam with a bounty of Asian herbs and rice stained blue with pea flowers. I love that idea, and weirdly enough, think it sums up Australian Christmas.

Here’s my offering in a similar vein – a beautiful dish fit for a special occasion, whether it be Christmas Eve, Christmas day, New Year’s Eve or a birthday. It is similar to that classic Cantonese dish involving a slick of yellow noodles graced with hunks of lobster or the orange carapace of a mud crab. The kind of platter you might spy on someone else’s table in a Chinese restaurant and wish you were sitting with them.

Inspired by something my family ate a few years ago in Japan in an unexpected place, this dish uses prawns instead of lobster or mud crab, which means it’s cheaper and easier to make that its Cantonese cousin. You make the absolute most of the prawns – and don’t actually need that many – as you use the heads and shells to make a richly flavoured prawn oil. The dish also includes leek and lotus root, although most of the time I make it with the unexotic (but perfectly good) potato.

Kochi is a small city on the island of Shikoku; definitely not one of Japan’s mega tourist destinations, which was one reason we loved the place. We leaned into the warm climate, amazing produce, friendly people, and the feeling of ‘discovery’ we had there (partly because we weren’t among legions of other tourists). One particular late afternoon, the sun was extremely hot – it was the end of Japan’s summer – and we didn’t know where to go for dinner. We traipsed around the streets and our young kids were getting grumpy as we looked at a few uninspiring menus and discussed what to do. Finally, we settled on a restaurant where we still didn’t know what to expect, but had a good feeling …

Upstairs we found a traditional space with tatami flooring, painted screens creating partitions, and seating on the floor at low tables. We loved the restaurant straight away, and the menu was a mix of modern and traditional; izakaya-style I think. We ordered a few interesting morsels and this noodle dish, which was so good we ordered another.

Raw tiger prawns (shrimp), julienned leek and sliced lotus root on a chopping board

Fried prawn (shrimp) shells in a wok
Japanese stir-fried noodles with prawns, leek and lotus root
Noodles with prawns, leek and lotus (or potato)

This is special-occasion dish and if you can get your hands on lotus root – mild in flavour, delightfully crisp, and extremely pretty – it definitely takes things up a notch. The season for lotus is autumn and winter, though at other times of the year you might be able to find imported roots. If you can’t, then potato works perfectly well.

While I have thrown other vegetables such as asparagus into the dish before, I think it is best as is: elegant and paired back. Serve with a refreshing side salad, or even just a plate of cucumber and tomato.

1 medium–large leek
600 g raw prawns (shrimp) in their shells
165 ml (2/3 cup) oil for frying, i.e. rice-bran
250–300 g dried wheat noodles, not too thin (udon, ramen or yakisoba all work well) – you can also use fresh noodles (1 x 500 g packet)
1 lotus root (or 2 medium potatoes)
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sake
1 tablespoon soy sauce
a few spring onions (scallions), sliced (optional)

Cut the leek into 5 cm lengths. Slice each round lengthwise into thin slabs, then cut into julienne.

Wash and peel the prawns, reserving the heads and shells. Make a shallow cut around the back of each prawn and pull out the intestinal tract. Cut each prawn in half or thirds to give bite-sized pieces.

Heat the oil in a wok over medium heat and add the leek. Fry, stirring regularly, for about 10 minutes, until most of the leek strands are golden. Scoop from the wok, pressing off as much oil as possible, and place on paper towel. The leek with crisp up as it cools down.

Add the prawn heads and shells to the oil and fry, stirring regularly, for about 5 minutes. Scoop the shells onto newspaper, leaving as much oil in the wok as you can. Discard the shells now they have done their job flavouring the oil (unless you have a food-loving dog – fried heads are a major treat and very healthy).

Cook the noodles in boiling water according to the packet instructions, until al dente. Drain and rinse briefly in cold water. Meanwhile, peel the lotus root or potatoes, then cut in half lengthwise and slice thinly.

There should be a few tablespoons of oil left in the wok after the prawns. If it looks too much, scoop some into a bowl. Heat the wok and add the sliced lotus or potato. Toss for a few minutes for lotus, or a bit longer for potato until it is becoming tender. Add the prawns and salt and stir-fry for another minute. Add the noodles, sake and soy sauce and toss well for another few minutes. Taste a noodle, and add more oil if you have some in reserve, and if you think the dish can handle a little more prawn flavour. To finish, toss through the spring onions if using, plus around half the fried leek. Serve in bowls garnished with the remaining fried leek.

Serves 4–6

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