Love prawn vadai but can’t get them where you are? I’ve got your back! Easy to follow recipe, and a little practice is all you need to create the perfect prawn vadai.
Estimated reading time: 9 minutes
What is a Vadai?
For those of you unfamiliar with this word, it’s a fried fritter made with a batter of legumes or potatoes. Also called vada, it can be found anywhere where there is an Indian legacy, from South East Asia to the Caribbean.
The vadai recipe we’re making today is using urad dal, or black gram that’s been husked and split. This particular version is said to have originated in Tamil Nadu, a South Indian state, where many Singaporean and Malaysian South Indians originally came from from.
One branch of our family still has properties there. That’s my uncle Abu (married to my mum’s youngest sister), whose parents came from a village called Thenur in Tamil Nadu, way back when.
Singaporean Prawn Vadai
So the urad dal vadai made its way to Singapore and Malaysia along with the South Indian emigrants. Over the years, alongside the likes of thosai, (dosa) and idli, the vadai became a staple not just for the local Indians but all the other ethnic groups too.
In both countries, it is/was especially popular in our pasar malams, or night markets. Unfortunately, with the rapid modernisation that is Singapore, pasar malams essentially disappeared in my childhood. This is why they are a huge attraction and for most Singaporeans when we cross the border.
Sometime in the 1960s, a prawn was added to the batter just before being fried, and this became the iconic Singaporean prawn vadai. Today, there are many stall in Singapore claiming to sell the best vadai, with a couple of them claiming to have created the prawn version. Suffice it to say, most of them are absolutely delicious!
Cooking Prawn Vadai at Home
The best vadai has a crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside texture. The crisp is most pronounced when they are fresh out of the hot oil, settling down to a soft bread-like crust as it cools down. But the crumb (the inside) should still be fluffy when done right.
Making Prawn Vadai at Home
- Soak the urad dal
The batter is made with just the lentils, so they want to be soaked to allow you to grind them well. 2 hours is the minimum amount of time, I just do it the night before so they’re nice and soft the next day.
- Grind the aromatics and spices
The flavour in vadai is given by the aromatics we use as well as a little cumin.
- Fry the spice paste
We fry the paste to remove excess moisture as well as to enhance the aroma before adding it to the batter.
- Make the Vadai Batter
Grind the drained urad dal with a tiny amount of water and mix with the cooked spice paste, and season. This is the crucial part of the recipe. It’s a fine balance between a soft batter that you can form into a shape and one that is too firm and produces hard vadais. Add only as much as is necessary, forming the shape below each time. When the batter feels soft but can still hold its shape, it’s done.
In this image, it’s still possible to add a teaspoon more water. Don’t forget, we still have the spice paste to add to it.
- Fry the Vadai
It’s a fairly soft batter, as mentioned above. We form a doughnut shape, press a prawn on and carefully drop it into the hot oil. Don’t burn your fingers! Or you could also place the prawn on the ball, then create the hole in the middle, whatever works best for you.
It might be easier if you form the vadai on baking paper (or traditionally, banana leaf) and slide it into the hot oil.
When done, just take it out with a slotted spoon and drain on a plate lined with kitchen paper.
If you struggle with shaping the vadai with just your hands as it’s a sticky dough, do it on a small square of baking paper. Alternatively, if you have access, a small piece of banana leaf. That way, you can just slide the formed vadai into the hot oil without it getting out of shape, and also, without burning your hands.
Prawn Vadai Ingredients
This is split and husked black gram (not black lentil). It is called by various names around the world, like ulundu, matpe beans, urad bean, mash kalai and here in the UK, at least, is also sold as urid dal. Despite Wiki and other sites saying it’s also called and sold as vigna mungo, I think you’d be hard pressed to actually find that, as the name is just describing its genus (vigna) and specie grouping.
Although urad dal is actually black when whole and unskinned, the one we want for this will look white, as it’s been skinned and split, as you see in the images below. It’s a very common lentil, so you should have no problem getting it if you have an Asian shop nearby.
Here is my global Amazon link for urad dal, this is the brand I tend to use more often than not.
Water plays an important role in today’s recipe because too much of it and our recipe will be a big fail!
First we soak the dal in plenty of water, which is then drained away. Then we want a teaspoon at a time as we grind the rinsed and drained urad dal to form our prawn vadai batter. The longer the dal was soaked, the less water you’ll need at this stage. Cool or cold water is best here to help get a crispy result.
In fact, once the batter is made, I place it over a bowl of cold water to keep it cool.
I add just a little baking soda to the batter for a bit of a lift. It helps to create a fluffier crumb (the inside).
Aromatics, Spices and Seasoning
This is what we need:
- green chilli
- curry leaves
- coriander leaves (cilantro)
- cumin seeds
For the true flavour, you must have all of the above. But I understand that curry leaves are not going to be possible for some of you depending on where you live. In that case, make sure that you use coriander leaves at the very least.
The prawn vadai itself isn’t spicy, so the green chilli wants to be of the mild-medium variety. We are going for flavour, not heat.
The cumin seeds will retain their shape, giving a lovely hint of spice with every bite.
I like getting large tiger prawns for this, as to me, it’s an important part of the Singaporean prawn vadai. But if you’re making this at home, it’s up to you.
As you can see in the images, the prawns are also left unshelled, with the heads on. The shells become crispy and you essentially just munch on it too. But I understand that the prawn head may give you the jitters. You can do one of two things:
- Clean the prawn head like I do but leave it on.
- Take it off altogether and cook the prawn vadai with headless prawns. And because you’re making it for yourself, you could even lose the prawn shells altogether, perhaps just retaining the tail for aesthetic reasons,
How to Serve It
With Green Chilli
Always, always serve the Singaporean prawn vadai with fresh green chillies. To eat it, we take a bite of the vadai, followed by a bite of the green chilli then chew them together. That’s just how it’s done, don’t ask me why! But I can tell you that the fresh green chilli gives an amazing hit of spice that is just perfect with the fried vadai.
With Chilli Sauce
My other favourite way of eating the prawn vadai is with spicy/sweet chilli sauce. Of whatever kind. We have chilli sauce with everything in Singapore and Malaysia, even with the odd sweet treat like goreng pisang (banana fritter)!
When I was younger, the Maggi brand of chilli sauce was the gold standard. Then, they introduced the garlic-chilli sauce which was even better. Much later, I discovered Lingham’s chilli sauce and have never looked back. Their ginger-garlic one is my favourite and go-to shop bought chilli sauce. Awesome with chips (fries) and mayo!
If you want to get hold of any of the above, here are the Amazon links for them:
With Coconut Chutney
This is another popular condiment to serve alongside our Singaporean prawn vadai. In fact, many chutneys will go with it too, even mango chutney.
If you fancy making your own coconut chutney, here’s the recipe on SMR.
And that, my friends, is that. Shall we get cooking?
If you enjoy the recipe, drop me a comment and let me know. Feeling like a star? Don’t forget that 5-star rating!😉
If you make this recipe, post it on Instagram and tag me @azlinbloor and hashtag it #linsfood.
More Local Indian Recipes
Singaporean Prawn Vadai (Lentil Fritter)
- large bowl
- food chopper or grinder
- chopping board
- wok or deep frying pan
- slotted spoon
- spoons as needed
- large plate
- kitchen paper
- 200 g split, husked urad dal
- 2-4 tsp water + more for soaking
- ½ tsp sodium bicarbonate
- ½ tsp salt
- 1 Tbsp vegetable oil for the spice paste
- 500 ml vegetable oil for deep frying the vadai
- 10 medium sized prawns
Aromatics and Spices
- 1 medium onion pre peeled weight about 150g/5.2 oz)
- 1 mild – medium green chilli
- 2.5 cm ginger
- 1 sprig curry leaves
- 2 sprigs coriander leaves (cilantro)
- ¼ tsp cumin seeds
Soak the lentils
- Soak the lentil for a minimum 2 hours. I usually just do this the night before.Cover it with plenty of water and leave on the counter, just like you'd soak any pulses.
Vadai Spice Mix
- When the lentils have had their soaking time, we'll get to the recipe itself.Peel and quarter the onion and drop it into a food chopper.Chop the chilli up into 2 and do the same. Peel and roughly chop the ginger and drop into the chopper.Pick the curry leaves and add to the chopper. Add the coriander leaves as is into the chopper followed by the cumin seeds.Process everything until you have a fine mix.
- Heat the oil in a small frying pan on medium heat and fry the spice paste for 3 minutes. Reduce the heat if it starts to catch.You want to fry it until you get a lovely aroma off it and the mix has lost most of its moisture, as it's going to be added to the vadai batter.Set aside to cool.
Clean the Prawns
- Traditionally, the prawns would just be rinsed and dried before being used.But if the idea of all that stuff in the prawns head is gross, let's clean it out and also pull the intestinal vein out while we're at it.All you need to do is to gently pull down the prawn head away from the body, to allow you to rinse it with running water. Clean the cavity out.Then gently pull out the intestinal vein and push the head back in place.Or just lose the head altogether!
Make the Vadai Batter
- Drain the soaking lentils and rinse them a couple of times. Tip them into your food processor once again (no need to clean it), along with the salt.Grind the lentil to form a fine paste. Add only 1 tsp of water at a time as you're doing this, to achieve a batter that will hold its shape as you form it into a doughnut-like ring.
- When you're happy with the consistency, tip it all out into a large bowl. You should have a smooth batter but with a gritty feel.Remember the spice paste we fried earlier? Add this to our vadai batter. Make sure it's not still hot. Mildly warm is ok. If it's hot, give it a stir and 5 minutes to cool down.Mix everything well with your hand. Take a pinch and taste it for salt. Add more if necessary.If you like, you can place your vadai bowl over another bowl filled with cold water to keep it cool. This helps the batter retain its shape while you're forming it and it also creates crispier vadai. Totally optional.
Frying the Vadai
- Heat the oil in a medium wok or deep frying pan on medium heat. You want to ensure that the oil is about 5cm/2 inches deep, to allow you to fry the vadai. If your wok/pan is big, you may need to use more oil.Have a plate lined with 3 layers of kitchen paper ready nearby.
- Using damp hands (not overly wet), form a ball with the batter and flatten it a little.
- Using your thumb, create a whole in the middle, just Like a doughnut.
- Place a prawn at the edge and press down a little. That hole will get smaller, don't worry about it.As mentioned in the article above. You could also place the prawn then create the hole. This is all about what works best for you.
- Very carefully (that oil is burning hot), slide or drop the vadai into the hot oil. If it's sticking to the side of your pan, after about 5 seconds, use a spatula and nudge it off the sides and into the middle. By this time, the batter will have hardened enough for you to do that.Cook for about 2 minutes on each side, flipping over once.Worried about burning your hands on having trouble with the shape, see the article above on how to do this using a baking paper or banana leaf.
- When done, take it out using a slotted spoon and leave to drain on a plate lined with kitchen paper. Sometimes, I forget to take pictures of a step!Repeat with the rest of the batter. Depending on the size of your pan and how quick and comfortable you are with forming the vadai, you can fry about 2-3 at a time. Not too many as it'll lower the oil temperature. If you find that your vadai is browning too quickly, lower the heat to medium-low.Leave to cool for at least 1 minute before serving. But be careful, it'll still be hot.