My family made frequent outings to Chinese restaurants when I was a young girl. My dad liked his dishes as spicy as possible and that meant we ferreted out the very best local Sichuan and Hunan cuisine to keep his taste-buds reliably ablaze. He wasn’t satisfied with his meal until he broke a sweat. Literally.

He’d order traditional Kung Pao Chicken studded with an extra-generous handful of dangerous-looking dried red chili pods, couldn’t get enough of inferno-worthy Hunan Triple Delight, and craved the lip-numbing tingle of Sichuan peppercorn on the palate. 

I even remember one evening when my dad ordered his hot and sour soup “extra, extra hot.” Our waiter looked concerned, but shrugged his shoulders and headed toward the kitchen. Moments later he returned with a bowl of innocuous looking soup. My dad dipped his spoon into the bowl  and consumed a hearty bite of the steamy liquid. Suddenly he was coughing, sneezing, and profusely sweating at table. He stuttered, cried, and even had trouble catching his breath before regaining his composure. Apparently, the extra, extra in “extra, extra hot” involved pouring hot chili oil onto the surface of the soup. My dad didn’t mix it in and took the blazing oil right off the top. In a way the whole experience seemed sort of exhilarating to him despite the fact we weren’t sure he was going to live through that small sip of soup.

Because my dad was such an insatiable hot-head when it came to Chinese food, our family never dined in restaurants peddling American versions of Chinese dishes; I didn’t even know what chop suey was until I was an adult.  Heck, we didn’t even dabble with traditional Cantonese fare. Cantonese dishes favor soy sauce and steer clear of the chili forward flavors of Hunan and Sichuan cuisine, opting in favor of a sweeter flavor profile derived from heavy ginger, hoisin, and herbal notes. Since my dad had no interest in anything less than a bonfire in every bite I missed out on bao buns, chow fun, and now trendy congee.

And I also missed out on something called shrimp lobster sauce.

Later in life, during a late-night, dorm room, take-out ordering spree, I heard someone order shrimp with lobster sauce and immediately realized she knew about something I didn’t. The whole concept of lobster sauce sounded elegant and expensive; I was immediately curious. When our take-out arrived I learned shrimp in lobster sauce is missing one key ingredient: lobster. Tricky.

Frankly, I hadn’t thought about shrimp in lobster sauce in years, but the forthcoming National Lobster Day, stirred up my fading memories of that brown lobster-less lobster sauce. I placed an order from Happy Chef in Forest Park to give the dish another try. I am typically more of a wonton soup and potsticker kind of girl, but my shrimp and lobster sauce detour proved to be quite a delicious treat.

Shrimp in lobster sauce is a tried-and-true American adaptation of a Cantonese dish. Traditionally, the corn-starch thickened sauce was used to dress stir-fried lobster, but American Chinese restaurants did away with the key ingredient opting instead to dress less expensive shrimp in a similar sauce. Whether you toss it with shrimp or lobster the star of any properly made lobster sauce is smattering of fermented black beans. The shriveled soy beans have a snappy, tart flavor profile and, like most fermented foods, bring mysterius umami notes to a dish. Lobster sauce also traditionally includes ground pork, soy sauce, egg, garlic, ginger, and a meat based stock. Served over rice with shrimp the resulting dish is the opposite of spicy; it is a unique riff on Chinese food and both comforting and indulgent. Who says you can’t leave the lobster out of a lobster holiday?

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