Ukoy with Shrimp and Anchovies

published Oct 18, 2021
Ukoy with Shrimp and Anchovies Recipe

Every bite of these crispy fried shrimp and vegetable fritters features an eye-widening harmony of salty, tangy, crunchy flavors and textures.

Serves6 to 12

Makesabout 13 ukoy

Prep30 minutes to 45 minutes

Cook30 minutes

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Credit: Photo: Neal Santos; Food Styling Amelia Rampe

I find comfort knowing that many of the Filipino foods I favored as a child were also my mom’s childhood favorites. That’s why I love trying to re-create her recipes from memory; it makes me feel connected to her and our ancestors — a feeling I constantly feed to keep those memories alive with each chop, sizzle, and bite. 

One of those special dishes is ukoy, crispy fried shrimp and vegetable fritters served with a sour, spiced vinegar dipping sauce called sukang sawsawan that’s made with an eye-widening harmony of salty, tangy, crunchy flavors and textures. 

Ukoy can be enjoyed as a street-food snack, merienda (afternoon snack), or as a side dish, and can be made in a variety of ways. Some versions just contain small, shell-on shrimp or dilis (anchovies) mixed in a batter, while others incorporate shredded vegetables like squash, taro, mung bean sprouts, or carrots. While I haven’t had the opportunity to eat this on the streets of the Philippines, I’ve been fortunate to taste different kinds of mouth-watering ukoy here in America. My favorite? You guessed it: Mom’s. 

Credit: Photo: Neal Santos; Food Styling Amelia Rampe

The Chismosa Catch of the Day

My first ukoy memory stems from a trip to Sunken Meadow State Park in Long Island. Mom made the best snacks for our family beach days, and she even prepared more delicious food to enjoy at home after our long day in the sun. On one particular trip, we saw another family casting their nets into the ocean, so my curious mom (we call her “Chismosa”) walked over to check out their catch. “Anchovies! Tons of anchovies!” said the Italian family with big smiles and soaked shorts. They kindly offered us a generous portion of their catch and suggested we bread and fry them, the Italian way, the moment we got home. 

I could not stop salivating on the car ride back to Queens. Before we could finish unloading the car, mom was already cleaning the anchovies and whisking a batter. Not only did she fry some with her favorite Italian-seasoned breadcrumbs, but she also made ukoy na dilis, a favorite of hers growing up in the Philippines. The little fish were mixed with shredded potato and carrots — so crispy, so briny. I became a fan for life. 

Credit: Photo: Neal Santos; Food Styling Amelia Rampe

Bring on the Crunch

When it comes to ukoy, some prefer an equal balance of crispy exterior and soft, tender center, while others favor a crunch-fest from start to finish. I’m definitely in the latter camp, which is why this recipe focuses on making the crispiest ukoy nests. 

Instead of making a batter with a mix of flours and egg, I stick with just cornstarch, a bubbly liquid (beer is always a win), and fish sauce to keep the ukoy “shell” airy and light. It also helps to salt the veggies to extract as much moisture as possible before coating everything in cornstarch. Unlike my mom’s recipe, where she mixed all the ingredients in the batter bowl, I drizzle just a little bit of the thin batter over each nest before frying. This allows the shreds to remain somewhat separated when frying, so there’s plenty of exposed surface area to crisp up like a chip. The cornstarch also helps lock in the moisture from the shrimp. 

You can experiment with different types of vegetables, but I find that root vegetables hold up best and stay crispier longer. I like the combination of ube (purple yam), orange sweet potato, and carrots, along with red onion and scallion. If you can’t find ube, you can substitute purple sweet potato or any other starchy potato you’d like. 

Ukoy are best served right away for the ultimate crunch, but they can sit in the oven on low to stay warm while you fry the next batch. If you do want to fry them a little ahead of time, leave them out at room temperature for at least three to four hours on the baking rack, then reheat them in the oven at 325°F for four to six minutes just before serving. 

Bonus tip: If you have extra dried anchovies, coat them in any leftover batter and fry up small anchovy fritters. Those ukoy na dilis make extra crunchy, salty bites. Think of them as a cook’s little snack reward. 

Ukoy with Shrimp and Anchovies Recipe

Every bite of these crispy fried shrimp and vegetable fritters features an eye-widening harmony of salty, tangy, crunchy flavors and textures.

Prep time 30 minutes to 45 minutes

Cook time 30 minutes

Makes about 13 ukoy

Serves 6 to 12

Nutritional Info

Ingredients

For the sauce:

  • 1/4

    small red onion

  • 2 cloves

    garlic

  • 4

    fresh Thai red or green chiles

  • 1 cup

    cane or distilled white vinegar

  • 2 teaspoons

    soy sauce

For the ukoy mix:

  • 1

    large or 2 medium orange sweet potatoes (about 14 ounces total)

  • 1

    large ube or purple sweet potato, or more orange sweet potato (about 12 ounces)

  • 4

    medium carrots (about 9 ounces total)

  • 1

    medium red onion

  • 2 1/2 teaspoons

    kosher salt, divided, plus more for seasoning

  • 1 bunch

    scallions

  • 26

    uncooked medium shrimp, peeled, deveined, tails intact

  • 1 1/2 cups

    small or medium dried anchovies

  • 2 cups

    cornstarch, divided

For the batter:

  • 4 cups

    vegetable oil, for deep frying, plus more for coating the plate

  • 1 1/4 cups

    cornstarch

  • 1 cup

    cold light beer or club soda

  • 2 tablespoons

    fish sauce

  • 1/4 teaspoon

    kosher salt

Instructions

Make the sauce:

  1. Prepare the following, adding each to the small bowl as you complete it: Cut 1/4 small red onion into small dice (about 2 tablespoons). Mince 2 garlic cloves (about 1 tablespoon). Finely chop 4 Thai chiles. Add 1 cup cane or distilled white vinegar and 2 teaspoons soy sauce, and stir to combine.

Make the ukoy mix:

  1. Peel and shred the following on the large holes of a box grater, adding each to the same large bowl as you complete it: 1 large orange sweet potato (about 5 cups), 1 large ube (about 3 cups), and 4 medium carrots (about 4 cups).

  2. Thinly slice 1 medium red onion (about 1 1/2 cups). Add the red onion and 2 teaspoons of the kosher salt to the bowl of vegetables and toss to combine. Let sit for 15 minutes.

  3. Meanwhile, cut the greens from 1 bunch scallions crosswise into 1/4-inch pieces (about 1 cup). Peel and devein 26 shrimp but leave the tails on; pat the shrimp dry with paper towels. Place the shrimp, 1 1/2 cups dried anchovies, and 1/2 cup of the cornstarch in a medium bowl and toss until everything is evenly coated with cornstarch.

  4. Drain the salted vegetables in a colander. Use your hands to squeeze out as much excess liquid as possible, then return the vegetables back to the bowl. Add the scallions, remaining 1 1/2 cups cornstarch, and 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt. Use your hands to toss and coat everything well, ensuring that all the shreds are separated and coated evenly.

Make the batter and fry:

  1. Heat 4 cups vegetable oil in a 10-inch high-sided skillet over medium heat until 350ºF. Meanwhile, place 1 1/4 cups cornstarch, 1 cup cold beer or club soda, 2 tablespoons fish sauce, and 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt in a medium bowl and whisk until smooth. Lightly coat a small plate with vegetable oil. Fit a wire rack on a baking sheet and heat the oven to 250ºF if you want to keep the fried ukoy warm.

  2. When the oil is ready, place about 3/4 lightly packed cup of the shredded vegetables on the plate and shape into a 3 to 4-inch wide “nest.” Top with 2 of the shrimp and a few dried anchovies. Spoon about 2 tablespoons of the batter evenly over the top of everything.

  3. Holding the plate in one hand and a slotted spatula in the other, carefully lower the plate just above the hot oil and use the spatula to gently slide the nest into the oil. Use 2 heatproof spatulas to help shape the edges and roughly form a round nest. Depending on the size of your pan, you can fry up to 2 to 3 ukoy at a time. Fry until the bottom is golden brown, about 2 minutes.

  4. Using the 2 spatulas, gently and carefully flip the nest over. Fry until the second side is golden brown and crisp, about 1 more minute. Transfer to the wire rack and lightly season with kosher salt. Keep warm in the oven if desired.

  5. Repeat frying the remaining ukoy, wiping the plate clean and coating with more oil as needed between each batch. Make sure to stir the batter well before each use. Serve right away with the sauce for dipping.

Recipe Notes

Shredding options: Instead of a box grater, the vegetables can also be shredded with a hand shredder or with the shredding blade of a food processor.

Vegetarian version: To make vegetarian fritters, replace the seafood with tofu and mushrooms. Cut a 14-ounce block of extra firm tofu into 1 1/2 inch by 1/2 inch sticks, then use a clean kitchen towel or paper towel to pat dry the tofu and transfer to a bowl. Cut 8 ounces of fresh shiitake or oyster mushrooms into 1/8 inch slices and add to the bowl with tofu, along with 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt and 1/2 cup cornstarch. Gently mix well until everything is fully coated and proceed with the rest of the recipe steps.

Make ahead: The ube, sweet potato, and carrots can be shredded and refrigerated in an airtight container up to 1 day ahead. Do not salt until you are ready to cook. The dipping sauce can be made and refrigerated in an airtight container up to 2 days ahead.

Storage: Ukoy does not typically store in the fridge or freezer well, as it is meant to be eaten immediately after frying. It can remain crispy at room temperature for 3 to 4 hours. If they cool down completely before serving, reheat in a 325ºF oven for 4 to 6 minutes. The exterior will still feel crispy but the center will be slightly softer (nothing to worry about, especially since many varieties of ukoy are meant to have softer, chewier centers).