My first experience with this type of stir-fry was at Big Bowl, a chain restaurant featuring an enormous, gaudy bowl on top of the roof. Our favorite dish used to be something called “Thai Hot Pepper.” The dish we remember was chock-full of amazing flavor from a tangy umami-citrus sauce, roasted peanuts, hot peppers, and tons of cilantro and Thai basil. The last time we went to the restaurant, however, the dish arrived garnished with exactly half of a Thai basil leaf.
We were done with Big Bowl after that. Besides, I had recreated the dish at home.
Making Shrimp Thai Basil Stir-Fry
This dish has a LOT of ingredients, including shrimp, mini sweet peppers, Fresno chiles, red onion, carrots, scallions, water chestnuts, cilantro, Thai basil, roasted peanuts, fish sauce, lemons, and palm sugar. If you can’t find Fresno chiles, use more of the mini sweet peppers and add 1–2 finely chopped Thai bird chiles for heat.
Thai basil can be hard to find. During the summer, I grow it in my garden. It’s usually available in Asian groceries all year long. When I can’t find it, I use regular sweet basil (but I don’t recommend using dried herbs).
I roast the peanuts myself, starting with raw, shelled and husked peanuts (I also find this at Asian groceries). In a pinch, I’ve used canned unsalted peanuts.
Palm sugar is the only other ingredient that can be hard to find (in the US, anyway). You can substitute brown sugar.
A dire warning about the sauce…
Shrimp Thai Basil Stir-Fry features a sauce that might seem a little…er, exotic. You mix lemon juice, FISH SAUCE, and palm sugar to achieve a balance of umami, salt, citrus, and sweet. Yes, you read that right. The sauce is based on nuoc cham, a condiment found throughout Thailand and Vietnam. People use it on just about everything, from vegetables and salads to soups, curries, and stir-fries. (Check out my quick nuoc cham sauce recipe.)
Phil didn’t even know what fish sauce was until after he met me. Sure, he wrinkled his nose at the idea (and the smell). But now, he gets it. It’s not fishy, per se. It just adds a deep umami-salty flavor in the background. Phil absolutely loves the Shrimp Thai Basil Stir-Fry sauce—so much so that I have to make extra.
With all that being said, I am fully aware that there are some people who are going to hate this sauce no matter what. To figure out whether you’re an enthusiast or a hater, I’d suggest making the full amount of sauce, but adding it to the stir-fry with caution. Maybe just add 2 tbsp of the sauce to start with. Keep in mind that the flavor will be balanced out by the herbs, hot peppers, and peanuts. If you sample the stir-fry and find that you’re a hater, dish up your portion using a slotted spoon. Once you garnish with plenty of herbs and peanuts, there really shouldn’t be enough of the sauce left to wreck the flavor for you. If you’d like, add a few dashes of tamari. It won’t be the same dish, but it will still be delicious.
Time-saving tricks for delivering Shrimp Thai Basil Stir-Fry on a weeknight
I won’t lie: there’s a lot of prep involved with this dish. That’s mostly because of all the chopping and slicing for the veggies. But you also have to juice some lemons to make the sauce. The good news is that you can do all of that in advance!
Meal-prep the vegetables and refrigerate them in airtight containers. I like to store ingredients that are added at the same time in the same container. For example, my first container will have chopped red onion, sliced carrots, and the white parts of the scallions. My next container will have all of my chili peppers. Then the scallion greens. Finally, although you can chop the cilantro in advance, I don’t recommend that you do anything with the Thai basil besides wash it (otherwise, it will turn dark and bitter). Tear it directly over your bowl when you’re ready to eat.
You can also make the sauce, roast the peanuts, and clean the shrimp. This means that all you have left to do at dinner time is make some rice and actually stir-fry the dish.
You can see the preparation steps for this dish summarized in the collage below and in the video I’ve linked to the recipe.
Squeeze the juice of 2 lemons into a measuring cup: you’ll usually get about 6 tbsp. Add the same amount of fish sauce (to make it easy, you could simply measure 1/4 cup each). Crush 2 tbsp. of palm sugar and add to the sauce. Mix and set aside.
Add peanut oil to a wok over high heat. Add the red onions, carrots, and scallion whites. Stir-fry for 2 minutes. Add the Fresno chiles, mini peppers, and the scallion greens; continue to stir-fry for 2 minutes. Next, add in the shrimp; stir-fry until pink on the outside and no longer completely translucent in the middle. Add the sauce; bring almost to a boil and then turn off heat. Serve with jasmine or Basmati rice, garnished with cilantro, torn Thai basil, and roasted peanuts.
NOTE: if the middle of the shrimp turn a solid, bright white, they’re likely overcooked. To avoid overcooking them, be sure to add the sauce and remove the stir-fry from the heat before the center gets to that too-white stage. The shrimp will finish cooking in the residual heat.
That’s it! If you work ahead to meal-prep the veggies, shrimp, and sauce, you’ll be shocked at how quickly this dish comes together at dinner time. I’ve also used microwaveable rice, or reheated leftover rice for even more time savings.
I hope you love all of the textures and flavors going on in this dish. Have a great weekend!
Shrimp Thai Basil Stir-Fry
- 2 tbsp peanut oil
- 1 large red onion
- 8 baby carrots - sliced 1/4" thick
- 4 mini sweet pepper - seeded and cut into chunks (you can also use sweet bell pepper)
- 2 Fresno chiles - seeded and cut into thin half-rings
- 1 bunch scallions - cut into 1" lengths, white parts separated from green parts
- 1/4 cup lemon juice - freshly squeezed
- 1/4 cup Asian fish sauce - (e.g., 3 Crabs)
- 1 tbsp palm sugar - crushed
- 1 lb while raw medium shrimp - (size 36/40–41/50) peeled, deveined, and washed
- 1/2 cup sliced water chestnuts - cut into matchsticks
- 1 cup cilantro - roughly chopped
- 1 bunch Thai basil - washed
- Add the lemon juice and fish sauce to a small bowl. Mix in the palm sugar. Set aside.
- Add peanut oil to a wok over high heat. Add the red onions, carrots, and scallion whites. Stir-fry for 2 minutes. Add the Fresno chiles, mini peppers, and the scallion greens; continue to stir-fry for 2 minutes.
- Add in the shrimp; stir-fry until pink on the outside and no longer completely translucent in the middle (see Recipe Note #1). Add the sauce (see Recipe Note #2); bring almost to a boil and then turn off heat. Serve with jasmine or Basmati rice, garnished with cilantro, torn Thai basil, and roasted peanuts.
- If the middle of the shrimp turn a solid, bright white, they're likely overcooked. To avoid this, be sure to add the sauce and remove the stir-fry from the heat before the center gets to that too-white stage. The shrimp will finish cooking in the residual heat.
- Not everyone is a fan of nuoc cham-like sauces. If you're concerned, add only 2 tbsp of the sauce to the stir-fry and give it a taste. If you're a hater, dish up your serving using a slotted spoon. Proceed with garnishing, and perhaps add a few dashes of tamari.
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