I've been on a mission to immortalize my grandma's dishes by putting them on my YouTube channel and blog. I’ve shared several others, and this garlic shrimp recipe is probably the easiest one. If you asked my grandma for the recipe she’d say, "There's no recipe, you just stir fry some shrimp" as grandmas do. But we know there's more to it than that because it always tastes a particular way! It’s got the sweet-salty-umami trifecta, with chunks of soft garlic. Seriously, so good.
So I set out to recreate it, but with my cheffy twists of course! It’s a go-to dish for when we had shrimp, but not much else, because all of the ingredients are Thai pantry staples. So this is a taste of simple, quick and easy Thai home cooking!
Here are ingredients you'll need. Very simple, basic stuff. See the recipe card for the amounts, scaling, unit conversions, and nutritional info!
- Large shrimp, peeled and deveined. I recommend shrimp that are at least size 21/25 so it feels substantial. I am using size 16/20. (The shrimp size numbers refer to the number of shrimp per pound, so shrimp size 21/25 means there are 21-25 shrimp per pound. So the smaller the number the larger the shrimp.)
- White peppercorns, black pepper will also work.
- Cilantro stems, chopped. Traditionally we use cilantro roots, but the stems make a great substitute.
- Garlic, since garlic is the main herb, try to use fresh garlic that has not sprouted. If you see green sprouts in the garlic, remove them as they can be bitter.
- Oyster sauce, see my post on how to choose a good oyster sauce
- Fish sauce, see my post on how to choose a good fish sauce
- Shrimp paste in oil. This is shrimp tomalley (orange stuff in their heads) that has been cooked with some oil and seasonings and it really is important in this dish. See below for what it is and how to substitute.
- Cilantro or green onion for garnish (optional, grandma never garnished, lol!)
- Jasmine rice for serving
Jazz it up: Topping the dish with fried garlic takes it to the next level. You can buy fried garlic at Asian grocery stores; or if you have time, make it yourself for best flavour, and you'll end up with garlic oil that is wonderful on just about everything. See my garlic pepper chicken recipe for how to make it.
How to Make Garlic Shrimp
Here are all the steps, but if this is your first time, I highly recommend watching the video tutorial to ensure success!
- In a mortar, pound garlic until chunky. You wanna leave them chunky as these will be delicious little garlicky bits. Then remove all but about 1 clove’s worth from the mortar.
- Add peppercorns and cilantro stems to the 1 clove of garlic and pound into a paste. This is a basic herb paste in Thai cooking called saam gler or "3 friends".
- Make the sauce by combining the oyster sauce, fish sauce, sugar, water and shrimp paste in a small bowl. Stir to dissolve the sugar.
- Dry the shrimp well with a paper towel. If you’re leaving the tails on, be extra sure to dry the tails, as water can collect there and cause a lot of spattering in the pan.
- Heat the oil in a wok until very hot, then lay the shrimp down in a single layer; you will need to do this in 2 batches. Let the shrimp sear until at least halfway cooked and slightly browned on the underside. Flip and cook the other side just until done (timing will depend on the size of the shrimp, but it should take no more than a few minutes total).
- Remove the pan from the heat and take the shrimp out, leaving all the oil behind. Repeat with the other half.
- Let the pan cool for at least a minute, then add the chunky garlic to the same pan and turn the heat back on to medium low. Saute for about 2 minutes or until softened and golden around the edges.
- Add the herb paste and saute for about 30 seconds.
- Turn the heat up to medium and add the cooked shrimp and the sauce mixture, then toss for about 30 seconds to mix and reduce the sauce slightly.
- Plate and garnish with chopped cilantro and/or green onions, if desired. Serve with jasmine rice. Enjoy!
The Secret Ingredient: Shrimp Paste in Oil
The secret to the deliciousness of grandma's garlic shrimp recipe is mun goong, which literally means "shrimp fat". Mun goong is shrimp tomalley, the orange stuff in shrimp heads, which is a rich, flavourful substance that's actually the liver, similar to foie gras. This is the most prized part of shrimp and prawns in Thailand.
In this recipe I'm using the prepared version which can be bought at many Asian grocery stores and is labeled "shrimp paste with soya bean oil." The only brand I've seen is Pantai brand. The jarred stuff is tomalley that has been cooked with some oil, seasonings, herbs, and some shrimp meat to add some bulk, so it's easy to scoop out and use. It's delicious.
Do not confuse this with fermented shrimp paste or gapi. Gapi is a funky, salty, fermented gray paste that is totally different from shrimp paste in oil and cannot be used as a substitute.
Other Ways to Use Shrimp Paste in Oil
This stuff is delicious and has a not-too-strong taste, which makes it easy to incorporate into just about anything. Taste it straight up so you know what it's like and have a better idea of where you can use it; but here are some ideas.
- Add it to any stir fry in the same way it's used in this recipe. It works beautifully to add umami in veggie stir fries, such as this long bean stir fry.
- Add it to fried rice, like how it's used in my pineapple fried rice recipe.
- Add it to fried noodles. Shrimp fat is commonly used in Pad Thai, and you can simply add a scoop of it to the sauce.
- Mix it into dumpling fillings, such as my pork dumplings or siu mai.
What to use instead of shrimp paste in oil
Truth be told, grandma never used this stuff. What she used was fresh tomalley right from the shrimp heads. So if you can't find the jarred stuff, look for some head-on shrimp! Here's what you can do:
- Grandma's method. She left the shrimp heads on and cooked it as per usual, and the tomalley just came out naturally as she stir fried the dish. BUT she peeled off the hard "shell" around the shrimp heads, leaving the actual head and the tomalley attached so the tomalley would come out more easily.
Tip: When you peel off the head you may notice a small black "bag" nestled in the tomalley. This is basically the end of shrimp's "vein", and if you don't like the idea of it you can use a tip of a knife to remove it.
- Rendering shrimp oil. You can remove the shrimp heads and cook them in oil to render out the tomalley, then use the rendered shrimp oil to cook this dish. To see how this is done, see my glass noodle pad thai recipe.
Note that these methods will not yield the same stuff as what's in the jar, as jarred shrimp paste is seasoned and has MSG added. But it will give the same shrimpy umami effect, and you can then taste and adjust the finished sauce with a little more seasoning (or a pinch of MSG) as needed.
What to Serve with Garlic Shrimp
This is a dish that's designed to be had with rice, so that's priority #1. But I also suggest pairing it with a side of vegetables to lighten it up and to add some crunch. Here are a couple that I think would work really well:
- Cabbage Fish Sauce Stir Fry. If you're cooking these because they're quick, you probably also want a quick side. This is it. The crunch and flavour work perfectly, and it only has 3 ingredients (4 if you count the pepper)!
- Chinese Broccoli (Gai Lan) Stir Fry with Oyster Sauce. Another simple veggie stir fry that delivers exceptional flavour. You can also cook this right in the same wok you used to cook the shrimp, no need to wash it in between!
- Also, explore all of my vegetable recipes for more ideas!
You can actually try this with chicken thigh and I think it would be delicious. You can skip the shrimp paste, as the fat from chicken thighs will also be tasty. If you're not allergic, you can still use the shrimp paste in oil even if you're using chicken.
Garlic shrimp reheats surprisingly well, so yes, you can make the whole thing in advance. You can also make the sauce and the herb paste in advance if you want it to still be "cooked fresh". The sauce will last indefinitely in the fridge, the herb paste will be good for a few days in an airtight container in the fridge.
You can also sear the shrimp ahead of time, but if you do, don't wash the wok before you do the final cook, as the oil and any bits stuck to the pan are all good flavour. If you have to wash the wok, just scrape all the oil and the bits out and save them so you don't lose that goodness!
The shrimp will last up to a week in the fridge. Reheat it in the microwave but be sure not to overheat it so as to not overcook the shrimp!
It's *almost* gluten free! The only thing is that most oyster sauce contains gluten. But lucky for you, gluten free oyster sauce is now widely available such as the green label Panda Brand or Megachef.
Grandma's Garlic Shrimp Recipe
- 2 ½ tsp oyster sauce
- 1 ½ tsp fish sauce
- 1 ½ tsp sugar
- 2 Tbsp water
- 1 ½ tsp shrimp paste in oil, see note 1
- 8 cloves garlic
- ¾ tsp white peppercorns
- 8 cilantro stems, chopped (see note 2)
- 1 lb large shrimp, peeled and deveined (see note 3)
- 3 Tbsp neutral oil, or as needed
- Chopped cilantro or green onions for garnish
- Fried garlic, optional
- Jasmine rice, for serving
FULL VIDEO TUTORIAL
All my recipes come with step-by-step video tutorials with extra tips not mentioned in the blog post, so make sure you watch the video to ensure success. If you enjoy them, consider subscribing to the YouTube Channel to not miss an episode. Thank you!Subscribe to my YouTube Channel
- Make the sauce by combining the oyster sauce, fish sauce, sugar, water and shrimp paste. Stir to dissolve the sugar.2 ½ tsp oyster sauce, 1 ½ tsp fish sauce, 1 ½ tsp sugar, 2 Tbsp water, 1 ½ tsp shrimp paste in oil
- Pound garlic until chunky. Remove all but about 1 clove’s worth from the mortar. To the garlic in the mortar, add peppercorns, and cilantro stems and pound into a paste.8 cloves garlic, ¾ tsp white peppercorns, 8 cilantro stems
- Dry the shrimp well with a paper towel, and if you’re leaving the tail on be sure to dry the tail extra carefully as water can collect there and cause a lot of splattering in the pan.1 lb large shrimp
- In a wok over high heat, add enough oil to coat the bottom. Once the oil is very hot, lay the shrimp down in one layer; you will need to do this in 2 batches. Let the shrimp sear until at least halfway cooked and slightly browned on the underside. Flip and cook the other side just until done (timing will depend on the size of the shrimp, but it should take no more than a few minutes total). Remove the pan from the heat and take out the shrimp, leaving all the oil behind. Repeat with the other half.3 Tbsp neutral oil
- Allow the pan to cool for a minute, then add the chunky garlic and turn the heat back on to medium low. Add more oil if needed, then saute the garlic for about 2 minutes or until softened and the edges start to turn golden. Add the herb paste and saute for 15-20 seconds.
- Turn the heat up to medium and add the cooked shrimp including all the collected juices. Add the sauce mixture, then toss for about 30 seconds to mix and reduce the sauce slightly.
- Plate and garnish with chopped cilantro and/or green onions and/or fried garlic, if desired. Serve with jasmine rice.Chopped cilantro or green onions for garnish, Fried garlic, Jasmine rice
Fabulous! Next will make with more sauce. Such a hit!
I was nervous because I couldn't find oyster sauce or shrimp paste in time but WOW. I'm relatively new to cooking, and this recipe is a game-changer. My wife loved it too. Frying up the shrimp got pretty dramatic because I put a lid on it and then the condensation started falling back into the oil and going crazy, but I persevered. DELICIOUS. Excited to try it again but with shrimp paste and oyster sauce!
I'm in shock - I made this and it tasted better than restaurant quality, which is amazing! This recipe is simple with clear and precise instructions with pictures of the paste and video to follow along. Thank you so much for sharing this wonderful recipe. This is a keeper!
So simple and so delicious! Made it tonight and my husband couldn't stop talking about how good it was. With a little jasmine rice and a separate cabbage shitake stir fry dish on the side. Thank you!