Whether bite-size Thai shrimp patties spiked with fish sauce, Vietnamese shrimp paste packed onto sugar cane or Southern American shrimp burgers shot through with mayonnaise, savory shrimp cakes are a tasty staple in coastal regions all over the world.
Unsurprisingly, their flavors vary depending on where they’re made. You’ll find them spiced with the likes of white pepper in China, chiles in Latin America or Old Bay seasoning in South Carolina.
Another point of difference is the binder — or lack thereof. Some traditional recipes skip it, mashing and pounding the shrimp until they stick together on their own. This results in a firm, bouncy texture after cooking, with a pleasing chew. Other recipes lace some combination of eggs, flour, cornstarch, bread or cracker crumbs, or rice into the shrimp batter, which make for airier, crumblier cakes that are easier to brown when cooked at high heat (usually deep-fried, pan-fried or grilled).
In my somewhat untraditional rendition, I’ve bound the batter with something else entirely: crumbs pulverized from puffed, crunchy rice cakes.
Although this may not seem intuitive, it does make sense, given that both rice and crackers are common binders. Rice cakes just combine the two. You get the mild flavor and gluten-free qualities of the rice along with the crispness of crackers.
Make sure to use the pebbly kind of rice cakes here (either thick or thin), the ones that vaguely resemble popcorn or Styrofoam. While you could crush up smooth, waferlike rice crackers for this, the shrimp cakes won’t be quite as airy. The beauty of the rice cakes is how all that air trapped in the puffed rice gives the shrimp cakes a lighter, more ethereal texture.
To make the crumbs, grind the rice cakes in a food processor or blender. Then, the shrimp and aromatics (I use a bracing mix of garlic, basil, cilantro and chiles) can be whirled together in the same container, no need to wash it first.
Chilling the batter for at least an hour (or overnight) makes it easier to form into cakes. And the fried cakes freeze reasonably well, though they won’t be as crisp after thawing. Running them under the broiler helps restore them.
I like to serve these with an herby, chile-flecked mayonnaise that’s sort of like a tartar sauce, but spicier. Then, I nibble them hot from the pan and dream of the beach.