Coconut Caramel Shrimp

Spring is the time of year when new cookbooks land. (Fall is the other.) I check out a lot of them, buy them or get review copies, cooking and baking from them. But it’s always interesting when one cookbook comes along, and as I’m reading through it, I realize that I want to make every single recipe in it.

But I should backtrack for a moment. A few months ago, I was sent a preview of Vietnamese Food Every Day: Simple Recipes for True, Fresh Flavors (for a back cover quote), and as I was paging through the PDF, I found myself mentally bookmarking all the dishes that I wanted to make. So I was thrilled when the actual book finally landed in my lap, or in my kitchen, and decided to start with the Coconut caramel shrimp. I mean, with a name like that, how could I not?

I love this book so much because it’s possible to make every recipe in it. Andrea Nguyen wrote Vietnamese Food Every Day with that in mind; every recipe calls for ingredients that are readily available. In the U.S., and elsewhere, many supermarkets now regularly carry things like rice wine vinegar, tofu, fish sauce, fresh ginger, and a variety of fresh chiles, which you used to have to cross town to try (and try..and try) to hunt down. Rice noodles and pomegranate molasses are the only things you might have to make a special trip to a multicultural market for. (Which to me, is never a bad thing, because I always discover some interesting and unusual ingredients when browsing the aisles.)

Speaking of tofu, when I first arrived in Paris, I went for lunch at a Japanese restaurant on the rue Saint-Anne and they wouldn’t serve me tofu. I couldn’t figure out why and on the way out, I asked the waiter why not. He said, “French people don’t like tofu,” which is wrong on both counts. The first count was thinking that I was didn’t like tofu, and the second was that Romain (who is) loves tofu and prefers it to meat now.

(And speaking of the rue Saint-Anne in Paris, where many of the Japanese restaurants are clustered, when I moved to Paris years ago, most of the restaurants you could just walk right into. Now they’re all packed. And I don’t think someone ordering tofu would surprise anyone, anymore.)

For those scared to tackle their own dumplings, even though Andrea pretty much wrote the book on homemade dumplings, in the same book where I found this recipe for Coconut caramel shrimp, she offers up super-easy wontons made with premade wrappers that float in a gingery broth. I’ve also bookmarked the spicy sweet pomegranate tofu, which, like this shrimp recipe, has a sweet & sour element to it, and looks amazing.

For those timid about making Vietnamese food, or foods featuring Vietnamese ingredients, Andrea really walks you through everything, from what to buy at the grocery store, to how to cook it right.

When shopping for the shrimp, I’d read somewhere that most “fresh” shrimp on offer at seafood markets is previously frozen. So you’re better off (financially) buying frozen shrimp. In this case, I wanted to use wild (sauvage) shrimp, and all I could find were frozen, so I used those to make this dish.

I mixed the sauce ingredients in a bowl then quickly stir-fried the aromatics (garlic and shallots). Once everything simmered down, the sauce ingredients were added to the skillet, reduce to a syrup, and the shrimp cooked quickly in the simmering liquid. Within minutes, lunch was ready. The tender shrimp that had been bathed in the coconutty caramel benefitted from the light touch of fish sauce added. The idea of using coconut oil and coconut water added flavor, without a lot of fuss (or fat), and we spooned up the very (very) tasty shrimp with some white rice, and beer.

Coconut Caramel Shrimp
Print Recipe
3 to 4 servings
Adapted from Vietnamese Food Any Day by Andrea Nguyen This recipe makes enough for a modest main course. I noted it served 3 to 4 and I'd say that number is closer to three, unless you are serving a few other things with it. I served it with rice to which I added a handful of finely chopped broccoli to the pot during the last few minutes of cooking, then stirred it into the rice when it was finished. Coconut water differs from coconut milk. The former is the water found inside fresh coconuts; coconut milk is the water blended with the coconut meat, and is white and creamy. But sure to use coconut water, which can be found in supermarkets or natural foods stores. I recommend keeping some extra coconut water handy and using it when the shrimp are finished cooking, in step #5, in case you want to loosen up (and use) any very thick sauce that's sticking in the pan.
1 1/4 pounds (570g) large or jumbo shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 1/2 cups (375ml) coconut water
1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon caramel (see note, below), or light molasses or sorghum syrup
1 3/4 tablespoons fish sauce
2 tablespoons virgin coconut oil
1 large shallot, peeled and thinly sliced (but not too thin)
3 large garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
2 scallions, just the green parts, thinly sliced
freshly-ground black pepper
1. Pat the shrimp gently with paper towels to absorb any excess moisture. Set aside.
2. In a medium bowl, mix the coconut water, sugar, caramel, and fish sauce until well-combined. (Andrea recommends tasting it to make sure it has a nice balance of sugar and fish sauce. If necessary, add a little more of either.)
3. Heat the coconut oil in a large skillet with the shallots and garlic over medium heat. Cook the shallots and garlic, stirring frequently, until they're translucent. Turn off heat and let cool a few minutes.
4. Add the coconut water to the skillet and turn the heat up to medium-high until the coconut water starts to boil. Let the mixture reduce at a steady simmer, adjusting the heat as necessary so it stays there, until it's reduced to about 1/2 cup (125ml). It will take 10 to 12 minutes. Add the shrimp and cook, stirring constantly, until the shrimp are just cooked through and the sauce is reduced to a loose, yet thickened syrup. If you think the shrimp are cooking too fast before the sauce is properly reduced, you can remove them with a slotted spoon, let the sauce reduce, then add them back.
5. Turn off the heat and stir in the scallions as well as a good amount of black pepper. Let the mixture sit for a minute or so before serving, stirring the shrimp so it gets coated in the sauce. If the juices get too thick, you can dribble in a little more coconut water to loosen things up.

Serving: The coconut caramel shrimp can be served with cooked rice. To make it a more complete meal, you can serve it along with some sautéed vegetables, as well.

Note: For the caramel sauce, Andrea's recipe calls for cooking 2 tablespoons of water and 1/2 cup (100g) granulated sugar with a few drops of vinegar in a skillet until it turns a deep amber color. Remove the pan from heat and add 1/4 cup (60ml) of water, which may bubble up (so be careful). Stir until smooth. Use 1 tablespoon of the caramel for this recipe. (The rest can be stored in the refrigerator, to use when you make it again.) For details on caramelizing sugar, check out my post <a href="">How to make the perfect caramel</a>.

Coconut Caramel Shrimp

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  • May 2, 2019 4:58pm

    This sounds and looks absolutely amazing! And easy to make, thank you.

  • Jan
    May 2, 2019 5:20pm

    can you get molasses in French supermarkets?

    • May 2, 2019 5:29pm
      David Lebovitz

      You can get it in natural food grocery stores, which are in every neighborhood. (It’s available at Naturalia, Bio C Bon, & Biocoop.) More info at my post American Baking in Paris

      • May 5, 2019 5:13am

        Made this for dinner tonight. OMG! AHMAZING!!!

  • Caro
    May 2, 2019 6:25pm

    This looks wonderful! I have a big problem in that my SO despises all things coconut (I’m just the opposite: LOVE IT), and can detect it in any dish like some kind of sniffer dog. How/what can I substitute in this recipe (and myriads of other recipes) that call for coconut water/oil/cream? Thanks!

    • May 2, 2019 6:39pm
      David Lebovitz

      Although I haven’t tried it, you could likely use water mixed with a splash of pineapple (or even orange) juice in it, in place of the coconut water. For the coconut oil, you can use deodorized coconut oil (non-virgin) which doesn’t have any coconut flavor, or a neutral-tasting oil in its place. If you do make it, let us know how it turns out!

    • P
      May 2, 2019 6:49pm

      There is also a WONDERFUL pomegranate (or tamarind) shrimp recipe in this book that you might want to try instead if your SO hates coconut!

    • BelleD
      May 2, 2019 9:01pm

      @Caro, you can use water instead of coconut water and oil instead of the coconut oil. That’s how my mother has always made caramelized shrimp (with pork). And if your SO is not adversed to ginger, add about 1 TB of julienned ginger (it’s fantastic). Usually, Vietnamese food made with coconut water doesn’t have a coconut flavor or aroma. I would think that the SO would like this with the substitutions that David recommends.

  • Cynthia
    May 2, 2019 8:08pm

    OT, David but can you recommend some French bread baking and food blogs? In other words what are your favorite French cooking websites or blogs written by the French for the French. Thanks!

    • May 3, 2019 3:39am
      David Lebovitz

      French people don’t really make their own bread (at least any I know) because there are so many bread bakeries that I don’t think it’s as interesting to make your own (when the corner bakery likely does it better). A few good French food blogs that I enjoy are C’est Moi qui l’ai fait!, Chocolate & Zucchini (VF), Papilles & Pupilles, Cooking with Bernard, and Hervé Cuisine.

      • Cynthia
        May 3, 2019 4:51pm

        Thank so much! You’re right. Who needs to bake bread when you live in France? C&Z I know and I’m heading straight to the others!

  • Retta Clews
    May 2, 2019 10:30pm

    You are correct that you will only find frozen (or pre-frozen) shrimp BUT all shrimp was “sauvage” before it was frozen – there are no shrimp farms, there are no tame shrimp!

    • Angela C
      May 3, 2019 1:11am

      I don’t know about in France, but there are definitely shrimp farms. Not all shrimp is wild caught.

    • Jeanne
      May 3, 2019 8:03pm

      55% of the world’s shrimp supply is farmed (aquaculture) shrimp. My family owned a shrimp farm in Mexico.

      • Alene
        May 3, 2019 9:27pm

        We eat the most amazing gulf shrimp on the west coast of Florida, Sarasota area, taken from the Florida Gulf. They are fresh, and I do not believe they are farmed. I might be wrong though. They are delicious, far better than any we’ve had in Washington DC, where we formerly lived.

    May 3, 2019 5:18am

    Interesting and tasty for sure but the Rue Sainte-Anne was a lot more interesting back in the mid and late 70s.

  • Melanie
    May 3, 2019 9:09pm

    Yum, makes me want to buy the book!

    If you don’t mind me asking, where do you buy pre-made wonton wrappers in France? (and what are they called?). I don’t think I ever saw any…


    • May 3, 2019 9:21pm
      David Lebovitz

      I see them at Tang Frères, Paris Store (in the 13th and in Belleville), and I think they have them at K-Mart and Ace Mart on rue Saint-Anne. But most of the larger Asian markets in Belleville and in the 13th carry them.

  • Lynda Posey
    May 5, 2019 5:22pm

    trying to plan to a cooking school in
    France this year..,. do you have any recommendations? love your books
    and been reading them for years!
    thank you!

  • Jean
    May 6, 2019 8:21pm

    I found the first day that there was a lot of fluid to boil down. Not sure I ever got to 1/2 cup even way after 12 minutes.
    The second day for leftovers I really appreciated the extra tasty fluid.
    Loved it the next day served with fresh asparagus.
    Will make it again.

  • Lee
    May 13, 2019 1:14am

    What is the consistency of the coconut/caramel liquid you’re looking for when you reduce it before adding the shrimp? It’s hard to gauge/eyeball 1/2 cup. Is it syrupy? Thanks for your site David. Something positive to look forward to in these crazy times.

  • Lee
    May 13, 2019 11:47pm

    This is delicious! A few suggestions:

    – Since the coconut water/caramel/fish sauce gets boiled down I suggest waiting until it is reduced in Step 4 to adjust the balance. When you first mix all the ingredients it’s hard to taste what it will be like at the end. Once it’s reduced you can better tinker with the balance and add what’s needed.
    – Shrimp cook rather quickly so the sauce won’t reduce much when they are added. I took out the shrimp and reduced to a kind of glaze.

  • Lindsey
    May 23, 2019 3:32pm

    Yuck! Did you really try this at home? It made my house reek!
    A real bummer