A Singaporean home-cooked favourite!
Singapore has mastered this popular cereal prawn Zi Char dish to perfection. Zi Char is a Hokkien expression used for fried home-cooked Chinese food, meant to be shared. The dish is slightly sweet from the cornflakes, butter and prawns, sour from the lime juice and salty from the seasoning. The chillies and curry leaves give a nice kick and add that quintessential southeast Asian taste and scent.
You won’t find cereal prawns being served in many food markets aka hawker centres in Singapore, as it is more of a casual home-cooked family meal, in fact from memory when I lived in Singapore, this was a firm favourite for children, with less chilli added of course. The prawns are buttery with a toasty, milky flavour from the cereal, a sure winner for kids’ tastebuds. The fried cereal bits are designed to be half on the prawns and half scattered on the plate. Don’t be surprised if there are no leftovers, not even the crumbs, as they are super tasty and addictive.
This recipe is straightforward, easy to convert into a delicious gluten-free meal and can be made in 20 minutes. Depending on where you live, the hardest part is getting the ingredients together, so I have listed some ingredient substitutes for you to make this dish possible.
Fresh Curry Leaves: This is a hard ingredient to substitute as it is so unique and special in flavour and texture. Regular supermarkets rarely sell fresh curry leaves, but they are found easily at most Asian supermarkets, especially Indian stores. Don’t forget to check the frozen section, as fresh curry leaves freeze well, and some supermarkets store them here to prolong their shelf life. Dried curry leaves won’t work in this recipe, so definitely leave these out.
The only substitutes I would aim for are fresh Asian herbs like coriander, Thai basil, Vietnamese mint etc. These herbs are not authentic to this dish but will still add a wonderful scent and flavour to the prawns.
Bird’s Eye Chillies: (known as Cili Padi in Singapore), are small red bullet chillies with a pointed end, and they pack a punch! As a rule of thumb, the smaller the chilli, the spicier they are. If you seed them, they will be less spicy. (Remember to wear gloves!). If you prefer less heat or can’t find them at the shops, aim for milder red chillies such as Serrano or Jalapeño.
Gluten-Free Cornflakes: If you happen to live in Singapore or nearby, Nestum Cereal Original Flavour is the original cereal brand used traditionally for this recipe. The bad news for gluten-free diets is that 67% is made with wheat flour! Unfortunately, the only gluten-free Nestum on the market is a baby food formula, which won’t work in this recipe.
Gluten-Free cornflakes have solved this problem and as there are plenty of gluten-free cornflake brands available to choose from, you will have that essential buttery sweet flavour and crisp texture for a successful dish.
Prawns: Use calamari, cut in rings. They turn out amazing in this dish, in fact, many Singaporeans choose between the two or occasionally make it with both kinds of seafood.
What type of prawns are used?
The best prawns to use are medium-sized with the tail intact. As I live in a landlocked country, buying fresh seafood is rare and expensive, but all my frozen prawns bought at the local and Asian supermarkets have worked well in this Singapore dish. I don’t have a preference over green or pink prawns, as the only difference is with green (raw) prawns, you need to cook them slightly longer to turn them pink and cooked.
Leaving the tail on is decorative, but for those who like to eat this part, the tail becomes extra crispy and is full of flavour in this dish.
How do you devein prawns?
After removing the head and any shell (except the tail for this recipe), either use a small knife or kitchen scissors to make a slit along the centre of each prawn. A dark intestinal vein will be exposed, and this is easily removed with the tip of a knife or a toothpick by starting at the head end down to the tail. Rinse the prawn in cool running water and allow to drain while continuing with the rest.
Don’t throw away the heads and shells as these can be frozen to make excellent seafood stock for soups or casseroles.
How to eat Singapore Cereal Prawns?
Once fried, eat immediately with some rice and a steamed Asian green vegetable of your choice such as baby bok choy/pok choy (Chinese white cabbage), kai lan (Chinese broccoli) or yau choy dressed with Tamari soy sauce, fried garlic pieces and yes! more chilli! And don’t forget a side of chilli sauce!
Singapore Gluten-Free Cereal Prawns
- 20 medium prawns, shelled & deveined with tails intact (fresh or frozen)
For the prawn batter:
- 1 egg
- 2 tbsp cornflour Known as cornflour in the UK and corn or maize starch in the USA
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tsp white pepper
For the gluten-free cornflake stir-fry mix:
- 25 fresh curry leaves, washed & dried
- 3 fresh birds-eye red chillies, seeded and sliced thinly or diced (add more if you like it spicy)
- 3 tbsp butter
- A few drizzles of vegetable oil
- 2 tbsp store-bought or homemade gluten-free plain flour
- 1 tbsp milk powder
- 120 g store-bought gluten-free cornflakes (see tips for alternatives)
- 1 tbsp sugar
- ½ tsp garlic powder
- ½ tsp onion powder
- 1 egg yolk (optional)
- extra vegetable oil for frying
- 1 lime, quartered, to dress
- vegetable oil, for frying
- Crush the gluten-free cornflakes coarsely in a blender.
- Mix the gluten-free crushed cornflakes, gluten-free plain flour, milk powder, garlic and onion powder in a bowl. Set aside.
- Mix the egg and cornflour in another bowl with salt and pepper.
- Add the deveined prawns, leaving the tails attached. (See tips on how to devein prawns)
- Fry them in 2cm of hot oil until golden but slightly spongy (not crisp). This will let the cereal mix stick to the prawns later.
- Remove the excess oil or use another wok to fry the cereal mix.
- Add the butter and some oil to the wok on medium-low heat.
- Fry the curry leaves and chillies until fragrant.
- Add the crushed cornflakes mixture to the wok.
- Stir-fry until it starts to look slightly golden, then increase the heat to medium and add the prawns, tossing them thoroughly in the cereal mixture to semi- coat them.
- If the mixture appears too dry, add an egg yolk mixed with a little water to the wok and stir well. Remove the wok from the heat when the egg has cooked through.
- Squeeze the lime over the prawns just before serving.
- Serve immediately with steamed rice and Asian green vegetables (with a side of chilli sauce for that extra heat)
- Keeps for 2 days chilled
- Not suitable to freeze