They pair perfectly with mango-habanero aioli.

By Bridget Hallinan
July 07, 2020
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To celebrate the end of 2019, Food & Wine editors combed through all the meals they’d eaten that year to gather the absolute best. There were odes to Bubbledogs in London, the nachos at Modern Love in Brooklyn, and dinner at Bavel in Los Angeles—for restaurant editor Khushbu Shah, it was the coconut shrimp at Rocky’s Hot Chicken Shack in Asheville, North Carolina, that she couldn’t stop thinking about.

Photo by Greg DuPree / Prop Styling by Christine Keely / Food Styling by Chelsea Zimmer

“Coconut shrimp gets a bad rap for being a cheap, overly sweet appetizer for people afraid of seafood, but I argue the one at Rocky’s might be shrimp’s ultimate evolution,” Shah wrote in her blurb. “It’s perfectly crispy and just slightly sweet and only gets better when dunked in the creamy mango habanero aioli it is served with. The hot chicken (with a side of mac and cheese) makes for a good follow-up course—but I will be back in Asheville for the coconut shrimp.”

Chef Rich Cundiff’s breading technique at Rocky’s is top secret; however, he did create this riff on his shrimp for our June 2020 issue, so you, too, can make it at home (and don’t forget that aioli, either). Read on for how to pull off the dish, with pointers compiled from Cundiff’s recipe and the Food & Wine Test Kitchen.

Make the Honey Glaze

The tart-sweet honey glaze is flavored with lemon zest, lemon juice, and black pepper, which helps cut through the naturally sweet coconut. Combine all the ingredients in a small saucepan, and simmer briefly just to help the sugar dissolve and all the ingredients meld together.

Don’t Forget the Baking Powder

Adding two teaspoons of baking powder to the batter, along with lightly beating the eggs, is what makes the coating especially light. When it comes time to bread the shrimp, you first dredge them (one at a time) in the flour mixture, shaking off excess, and then dip them into the egg batter (again, letting excess drip off). Finally, dredge them in the coconut mixture.

Freeze the Shrimp

Cundiff’s recipe instructs you to freeze the shrimp on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet for about 30 minutes (until firm) after breading. This not only helps the batter adhere to the shrimp, but since you’re cooking from frozen, also ensures the shellfish won’t overcook in the oil.

Speaking of Oil…

Make sure it’s at the correct temperature, 325°F, so you can fry those shrimp to a crisp. (You can use a candy thermometer to check.) When you do start adding the shrimp, the temperature will drop, so adjust as you cook.

Lower the Shrimp in Carefully

You always want to be careful when you’re adding something to hot oil, to avoid splashes and burns. Since this recipe uses tail-on shrimp, you can lower them in, laying them in the oil so that the last bit falls away from you; or, use a spider strainer to lower them in.

Let ‘Em Drain on Paper Towels

After the shrimp are cooked, transfer them to a plate lined with paper towels so they can drain. This way, the excess grease will be soaked up and your shrimp will stay nice and crispy. Then, all that’s left to do is drizzle on the honey glaze, grab the mango-habanero aioli, and start dipping.

Get the Recipe: Honey-Pepper Coconut Shrimp