A couple of years ago, Phil commissioned me to learn how to make his favorite stir-fry: Thai Hot Pepper Shrimp with Basil & Peanuts. The dish originated from Big Bowl, a small-ish Asian chain restaurant with random locations scattered around Illinois, Minneapolis, Ohio, and Virginia. The restaurant is immediately recognizable by its outer décor, which primarily features—you guessed it! —a big bowl.
Recreating Thai Hot Pepper Shrimp with Basil & Peanuts
I discovered that the restaurant posts its most popular recipes on its website, and set to work.
The recipe called for fish sauce in equal parts with lemon juice, mixed with sugar to make the sauce. It sounded a little off-putting, but was really very good: major umami going on, but not recognizably fishy.
Quite a bit of prep was involved, mostly from chopping the vegetables—peppers, red onion, and scallions—and juicing the lemons. There were also raw peanuts to roast to a nice, golden brown, and water chestnuts to slice. The dish is served over jasmine rice, so there’s that prep as well.
Shrimp is the star protein in Big Bowl’s stir-fry recipe, but I opted for boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut up into bite-size pieces.
B.B.’s original recipe for the stir-fry called for Fresno chilis—I had no idea what those were. An image I found on the interwebs looked like a cross between a habañero and a red jalapeño. From this information, I somehow deduced that habañeros would be an acceptable replacement.
Also in the recipe was a teaspoon of Thai chili. I added more. We are chili heads, after all.
Once the cooking started, things moved quickly. A quick, 2-minute stir-fry of the vegetables, then I added the sauce, turned off the heat, and tossed in the peanuts, sliced water chestnuts, some rough-chopped cilantro and Thai basil.
The smell was amazing: fragrant—and HOT.
EATING the stir-fry from hell
The dish itself was beautiful…but it was a plateful of lava from the inner core of hell. As we ate, the quiet was interrupted by loud, wet sniffs, and we both had tears streaming down our faces. But it was GOOD. Phil went back for a second helping. And then a third.
The heat made an encore appearance the next morning.
I have since made this stir-fry—a TAMER version—many times: it has become a go-to favorite. Because of the involved prep, I only make it on weeknights if I have time to chop everything and roast the peanuts ahead of time. I leave the peanuts uncovered in the toaster, and put everything else in zip-top bags. When all the prep is done beforehand, the whole thing comes together in about 20 minutes (depending on what protein you use), including the rice.
Notes on the stir-fry ingredients
Thai basil is often hard to come by and requires a visit to the farmer’s market or an Asian grocery store. If you can’t find it, sweet basil will work in a pinch, but it’s quite different. This is part of the impetus for the raised garden Phil and I just put in: Thai basil features prominently among the herbs.
Instead of Fresno peppers (or habañeros!), I have found that those little, sweet, multicolored peppers are a perfect substitution. I use a bit more Thai chili for heat.
Phil is also a big fan of sauce—as a general rule. “He likes-a da juice,” as he says (ripped right out of Saturday Night Live). So I now use the juice of three lemons, which comes out somewhere in the neighborhood of 2/3 cup. Then I add slightly less than an equal portion of fish sauce. I use Splenda rather than sugar to reduce the calories somewhat.
About that sauce…
Phil had no idea what fish sauce was before he met me, and gagged the first time he smelled it. But now he KNOWS: that umami flavor knocks sauces from just about any cuisine out of the park. He especially loves this sauce, which has a distressing amount of the stuff. If you’re put off by the idea, cut back on the amount of sauce that you use and/or remove the stir-fry from the skillet with a slotted spoon. The herbs and aromatics are powerful—the lemony-umami of the sauce simply sings back-up.
I’ve varied the protein from shrimp, to chicken, to flank steak for this stir-fry. If you use something other than shrimp, give it a good browning and cook it about 3/4 of the way before you stir-fry the vegetables. Add it back to the pan and finish cooking after you add the sauce. I like flank steak in the neighborhood of medium-rare: I give it a good salting, get a good sear on both sides (2-3 minutes each on med-high heat), then cover it with foil and let it rest for at least 5 minutes before slicing it thinly (across the grain), and then cutting the slices into bite-size pieces. When they go into the sauce, it’s usually not much more than a 1-minute reheat.
Sometimes I leave the protein out altogether: after all, the vegetables and herbs are really the stars of this dish. It’s not the same dish without the Thai basil, but I also love the cilantro (if you’re genetically predisposed to be a hater, leave it out!). I often add sliced baby bok choy for added freshness and wow-factor. Really, just about anything you want will work. The important part is to sauté the vegetables only just long enough for them to soften slightly—then turn the heat off, throw in the peanuts and water chestnuts, and add the herbs for a quick wilt before serving.
The resulting dish is a wonderful medley of flavors and textures. I hope you enjoy it as much as we do!
Without further ado, here is my new-and-improved recipe:
The Stir-Fry from Hell
- 2 cup jasmine or basmati rice - prepared as directed
- juice of 3 lemons - or approx. ⅔ cup
- slightly less than ⅔ cup fish sauce
- 3 tablespoons pure cane sugar - palm sugar, or Splenda
- 2 tablespoons of peanut oil
- 1 large red onion - cut into large cubes
- 1 bunch of scallions - cut into 1-inch lengths, white parts separated from green
- 1 cup of mini sweet peppers - sliced into 2-inch half moons
- 3 teaspoons Thai chilies - less if you're heat-averse! , bias sliced
- ⅓ cup sliced water chestnuts - I like the sliced ones in the can, then I slice them into slivers
- ½ lb whole raw medium shrimp - peeled, deveined, and cut in half down the center of back
- OR - cooked chicken breast (cut into bite-size strips), cooked flank steak (cut into bite-size strips: make sure to cut across the grain!), or cooked chicken thighs, cut into bite-size pieces
- OR - leave out the protein!
- ¼ cup chopped cilantro
- ¼ cup chopped Thai basil
- ¼ cup whole roasted peanuts - fresh roasted are best
- 2-3 baby bok choys - sliced lengthwise, optional
- Combine fish sauce, lemon juice, and sugar in a 2-cup measuring cup or a small bowl. Stir to combine and set aside.
- Preheat your wok (or large frying pan) over medium- high heat, until crazy-hot. Add the peanut oil and swirl around the wok, heat for about 15 seconds or until wok is nearly smoking. Stir your onions into the oil. If you're using bok choy, add it now. Add the white parts of the scallions and stir into the oil. Add the red and Thai peppers; stir-fry for 15 seconds.
- Add the shrimp halves (if using). Stir gently until shrimp are barely turning pink, about 20 seconds. Or, if you're using pre-cooked meats, add them now and heat through.
- Add in the water chestnuts, the scallion greens, and your lemon juice + fish sauce + sugar mixture, stirring continuously to combine. Heat the sauce to almost, BUT NOT QUITE, boiling.
- Turn off the heat and pull the wok off the burner. Stir in the Thai basil, cilantro, and peanuts. Combine well and serve immediately over rice. Enjoy!