Saturday, October 24, 2015

Shrimping ain't easy

Shrimping is one of those Taiwanese past times that draws a cult following of locals much like bowling does in the west. People who do it regularly love it, bring their own equipment, and have an entire social network centered around the activity. Many of the shrimp shacks are open around the clock all year round and run a restaurant in addition to the pools of massive shrimp. It's not uncommon to see big groups of young Taiwanese folks having a giant meal, a rack full of giant beers, and plate after plate of fresh grilled shrimp.

Tourists who have done some research on Taiwan might have stumbled across shrimping as an activity and not paid it much mind. The reality is shrimping is easily in the top ten things you must do when you're in Taiwan. If you have not been to a shrimping stand and think you've gotten local, it's time to think again.

For an average price of 300 NT per hour you get a rented pole, some bait, and a seat around a murky pool of water. The staff regularly feed giant crates of mega sized shrimp into the pool to stock it and make sure you at least catch a few in the time you're there, so there is no need to have performance anxiety.



Be forewarned that no one will probably speak English. If you know how to smile and are not mocking shrimping you'll draw a lot of polite interest. If you can speak Taiwanese or Mandarin someone could be nice enough to teach you how to shrimp properly and you might make some new friends. Like truly local friends who invite you over for dinner.

Grab the pole, the plate of krill, and a blue mesh net and take it to your seat. Feed the net it into the water and loop its string around that pipe or hook you see sticking up at regular intervals. Put the bait on the basin's rim in easy reach. Unravel the line on your pole and shove the whole thing right into the water to feel how deep it is. Pull it out and use the water line to measure your bobber so the hooks will float just above the bottom. Don't assume the guys who rented it to you took the time to line it up just right. If your line is too short the shrimp can't get to your hooks, if it's too long you can't control the line enough to be sure the shrimp don't spit it out as you lift them.

Those krill on a plastic plate are your bait, not an appetizer. Bait your hook by holding the krill between your fingers and pushing the hook through the little guy's back so that the business end is hidden in its belly. Repeat for the second hook. Make sure your line is totally untangled and drop those babies into the water.

Unlike real fishing there is no secret with the angle of your pole. What you want to do is watch the bobber and see when it starts to track sideways or sink. The tracking is harder to notice because there are bubble machines running, but the sinking is obvious. This is where a beer makes the waiting game a lot more fun, and shrimping places always sell beers.

Once you see the sinking DO NOT immediately pull up on your pole. After hours of shrimping practice, plus tons of berating by the local experts, the confirmed method is to wait six seconds - where you count quietly under your breath "one, two, three, four, five, six" - and then put tension on the line and quickly pull out your shrimp. Don't wrench that baby out of there, but don't be shy to give it a quick tug.

Up comes your shrimp and it is time to get physical. Like all creatures stuck through the mouth with a steel hook, it's going to kick and fight a bit. The boy shrimps have blue claws on them, and if they claw you they can break the skin. Grab the shrimp length wise in your hands so his back is in your palm and use your fingers to gently grab his legs and tail and stop him from twitching. If you grab him right he can't claw you at all.

They kick a lot if you let them dangle like this.

Once you got him in your clutches tip the shrimp upside down so his head is towards the floor which the locals claim will stun it. Snatch his blue claws by going over his head - they won't see your hands coming is the idea - and then just rip them off of his body. To get the hook out you keep holding his body, nose towards the ceiling, and then rip the hook downwards towards his tail. If you pull it upwards or try to get fancy like you would with a fish it gets stuck and basically tortures the poor thing even more.

Pull up the blue net and put your hand into the opening and drop the shrimp in there. Shame on you if he kicks his way out of captivity. It'll stay fresh under water in your net longing for freedom until it's time to cook it up with all his friends. Bait up your hook again, drop the business ends back into the water, and keep enjoying that beer until you get another bite.

Keep a close eye on your time, an hour goes fast in the shrimping world. It's fine to shrimp for a few hours, but be realistic about how much you want to spend. If you go much past the hour mark you'll need to pay for another full hour, half hour, 15 min, etc. No one will tell you when it's time to stop so you have to make the call. Grab your pole, the paper they gave you with a time written on it, and head back to the desk and pay the fee for your shrimping time. Now you can start to prep for the grill.

Bag up your shrimp and take them home alive or grill them up at the store. If you don't want them, give the entire net with your catch to someone who does. DO NOT just throw those hard earned shrimp away!

Most shrimping stores make you grill by yourself. First take your net to the big sink and wash those babies up with clean water. Even if you cook things real well the murky water should get rinsed off those shrimp. Expect them to twitch a lot in the sink.

Once they're rinsed you're ready to skewer them. Grab them and hold them out flat like you did to pull off their claws. Skewer them into the soft fleshy part of their belly about three quarters of the way down towards their tails. Push the skewer up until the shrimp is secure but don't puncture their stomachs which are in the back of their head section. Run it through a huge tray of salt if you want, and then put them on a big steel plate.

Cooking up the shrimps.

You may need to fire up the grill, a job that is probably best left to the people who work there. It's a good time to look like a stupid foreigner so you don't blow yourself up. Once the grill is fired up you just put those still twitching shrimps under the heat and slowly cook them to death. It's important to turn them to stop them from burning on one side, but their whiskers will burn off pretty early on which is fine. They are done when they are dead, totally pink, and look like cooked shrimp.

Grab a clean plate, put the shrimp on it, and put them on a table to cool. Turn off the grill if no one is going to use it, wash the plate that had the uncooked shrimp on it, and then get ready to eat! Order up more food if you want, beers, whatever suits your fancy. It's worth keeping in mind that the shrimp are farm raised and chemically encouraged to become enormous. Luckily a good haul is between six to ten shrimp per hour, so eating all of them just one time shouldn't be a big deal.

Catch boiled at home after a late night shrimping in Taipei when the grills were closed. 

Most first timers tend to be leave shrimping somewhere between excited by the activity and completely repulsed by the rather gristly business of catching, mangling, and then slowly roasting shrimp alive. Whatever your feelings it's a totally local activity where you can meet incredibly friendly people and you'll be hard pressed to find something like this elsewhere.

Google up "釣蝦場" or if you don't have a way to keep that address handy ask at your hotel, a local friend, boss, etc., about where to go to get your shrimp on. Not every place is 24 hours. In Taipei you can find a lot of places out in the mountains past the national palace museum on shrimp hill, and a few in the city center.

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