Bugs with garlic and pepper recipe

Recipe: Tôm Hùm Xào Tỏi – Bugs with garlic and pepper

Restauranteur and owner of Red Lantern Pauline Nguyen shares a recipe from her memoir Secrets of the Red Lantern that tells a story of how she brought together flavours of Vietnam with discoveries she has made since moving to Australia as a refugee.

Bugs with garlic and pepper recipe
Pauline Nguyen shares a recipe of tom hum xao toi, otherwise known as bugs with garlic and pepper.

I was first introduced to balmain bugs (the crustacean) when I was supporting myself through university as a waiter at the Balmain Bug (the restaurant). In my naivety I believed that the chef, a local, went out every morning to catch these strange creatures fresh from Balmain’s waters. My admiration for the man grew incrementally when I noticed his signature catch appearing on the men of many restaurants throughout Sydney. It was not until several years later that I discovered chef Gill’s balmain bugs were never caught from Balmain wharf at all – they are found all over Queensland and Western Australia and are sold at the Sydney Fish Markets. Unluke regular rock lobsters, they have a wide shovel-like antennae instead of pincers so they can dig deep into the ocean floor to search for food. The flesh of bugs is sweeter and more tender than the regular rock lobster.

My father has harped at Mark on numerous occasions that ‘stir-fry is stir-fry and soup is soup. You don’t stir-fry soup!’ However, Mark has included stock in this recipe as he enjoys spooning this delicious sauce over his rice. Leave the stock out if you agree with my father. This recipe is also great with prawns or crab.

Main: Serves 4
Shared dish: Serves 6

8 raw Balmain bugs, slipper or shovel-nosed lobsters
2 teaspoons oil
2 garlic cloves, crushed
4 spring onions
100 g butter
2 teaspoons cracked black pepper
2 teaspoons sugar
½ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon fish sauce
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
4 tablespoons chicken stock (optional)
1 lime, cut into wedges
1 large handful coriander leaves

Wash the bugs, then cut them in half lengthways. In a wok over medium heat add oil, garlic, spring onions cut into 4 cm lengths and half the butter. Cook until fragrant but not brown. Add half the bugs, increase the heat and stir-fry for 4 minutes, or until the bugs change colour. Remove the cooked bugs and stir-fry the remaining raw bugs. Return the reserved bugs back to the wok with the remaining ingredients, including the butter. Stir-fry to heat through, or if using the chicken stock, heat until the stock starts to boil. Garnish the dish with lime wedges and a generous handful of coriander.

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