Typically, shrimp or prawn balls are an Oriental dish, but they are also popular in the southern part of the United States and other areas. Most recipes list the ingredients as minced shrimp or shrimp paste, vegetables, and binders. Although most recipes instruct the cook to fry the shrimp balls, other recipes, such as the Roman shrimp ball recipes, suggest boiling the balls in water or broth. Fried shrimp balls are very popular in dim sum restaurants; the dim sum tradition spread to Western cultures in the 19th century. Both the Oriental and Roman dishes are centuries old and traditional in seaside cuisines where shrimp are abundant.
Oriental and Roman shrimp balls use raw shrimp as a main ingredient. Recipes from southern states in the US usually contain cooked shrimp. Customarily, shrimp ball recipes require the cook to grind the shrimp into a paste-like consistency or mince the shrimp. A cook may process the shrimp using a food processor or manually prepare it with a meat cleaver. To use the cleaver technique, mince the shrimp finely and make a shrimp paste by crushing the shrimp against the cutting board with the flat side of the cleaver.
Another difference between the Oriental shrimp balls and the Roman or American version is the texture. Typically, Oriental shrimp or prawn balls have a crunchy texture inside that is achieved when a cook uses finely diced or minced water chestnuts. The Roman and American versions do not have this characteristic crunch. Often, American cooks substitute crawfish for the shrimp when crawfish are abundant. Other cultures may substitute other seafood, including fish, crab, and oysters.
Dim sum eateries originated as a Cantonese custom centuries ago. They were tea houses that offered sweet and savory tidbits with the tea. Shrimp, fish, and other meat balls were common and continue to be popular in dim sum restaurants in modern times. During the 19th-century migration of Chinese workers to Western countries, such as the United States, Chinese cooks spread their cuisine throughout the world.
Most recipes use the same process. The cook grinds or minces the raw shrimp and adds finely chopped vegetables, such as water chestnuts and scallions. Other traditional ingredients include flavorings like ginger root, diced lard or pork fat, and egg whites. After mixing the ingredients well, the cook forms them into balls and rolls them in dry breadcrumbs before frying them in hot oil. Each cook has a favorite recipe or technique for making the balls.
One technique that gives the balls a crispier outer shell is double frying. A cook fries the balls until lightly brown and then removes them, allowing them to drain. The cook reheats the oil, and when it is hot fries the shrimp balls again until they are the desired color and texture.
Some people prefer poached shrimp or fish balls. The Romans poached the balls in water that they flavored with celery leaves and black pepper. Other cooks use flavored broth, such as chicken or vegetable broth. Boiled or poached balls are not as common as fried ones.