Takeout Chinese food is one of my family’s favorite things: the over-sized menu, the lo mein, combination platters. For years, my son and I relished an opportunity to stop by a certain strip-mall joint and order something called “Batter Fried Shrimp,” which we would eat before we made it home, while they were so hot we had to make all sorts of frantic, open-mouthed exhalations to prevent burning our throats.
Unlike butterflied shrimp, this dish includes no breadcrumbs, but instead is a single shrimp, fixed in a ring of light batter reminiscent of fish and chips. The batter was always a full circle, and the shrimp would curl and fill three quarters of the loop. I think they must freeze the crustaceans like that; I can’t figure out how else you’d get the batter to complete the ring to create this wonderful shrimp donut.
We no longer live close enough to go to this restaurant, but the concept of a shrimp donut has stuck with me ever since. It also made me think about why more shops don’t make savory donuts. It’s about time that donut culture broke through the glazed wall.
Some bakers have taken the first step by experimenting with unusual ingredients. The first savory donut I found was at Voodoo Doughnut in Portland, Oregon. Tres Shannon and Kenneth “Cat Daddy” Pogson, the founders, were working late, coming up with new items, and Pogson brought in a package of bacon and dipped it in the maple. “It was all there, the sweet and the meat, like breakfast,” Shannon told me. “We’d make them on the weekends. We’d make maybe a dozen at a time. It got some legs, and we started making more.”
Anthony Bourdain stopped by Voodoo Doughnut in season three of No Reservations, and he was overwhelmed by their Bacon Maple Bar. He came back on Sunday to get another one, but they were closed. They had to ramp up. “And we had to open on Sundays,” added Shannon with a laugh.
Why, I asked Shannon, haven’t we moved into the next stage of savory donuts? It seems clear to me that instead of decorating donuts with bacon and other salty toppings, the next stage is embracing donuts that actually incorporate these ingredients into the batter.
Think about it: We have chicken and waffles, we have okonomiyaki, tempura, conch fritters, fry bread sandwiches, French toast. We even went through a brief trend of people eating burgers on glazed donuts at state fairs around the country.
Why aren’t there savory donuts everywhere? Why hasn’t it happened yet?
What’s excellent about donuts is how light and spongy they are. The ring shape is what makes a donut, a donut but it is also the secret to their deliciousness. The added surface area, the extra contact with the hot oil is, after all, the key development in donut history—they cook fast, they cook evenly and they puff up. Perhaps best of all, increased surface area means increased caramelization, which is flavor in its own right.
Now, why not take that caramelization of the donut dough and instead of just hammering home the sweet aspects of it, get some proteins into the mix. One of the reasons cheeseburgers taste so good is that the caramelization of the bread and the char of the meat go together perfectly.
I guess what I’m asking is this: Why can’t we roll into every donut shop and get bacon studded cheese donuts? Where are the donuts spiked with seaweed and scallion?
I asked Shannon if it was a simple kitchen logistics problem. After all, a donut shop is built with a specific purpose to make a certain family of items.
“Our grease doesn’t have any proteins fried in it,” said Shannon, “so it doesn’t break down as quickly. We make donuts three times a day, and we filter our grease 3 times a day.” They wouldn’t be able to reuse the same oil over and over again if they were also frying meat.
But Voodoo has been thinking about it, though. Shannon told me a story about the oyster donuts that they made in the early days. He had to run next door to an old PDX oyster house to grab an oyster every time somebody wanted one, and the novelty quickly faded away. They also tried wasabi donuts, “I don’t know if that’s really savory, but it’s different. It looked great, it was so pretty, but it didn’t work.” Folks couldn’t wrap their heads around a pistachio colored treat buring with the hot fire of wasabi. But they haven’t given up hope just yet. “We’ve got some people out there looking at savory powders and potions,” he assured me.
Maybe I just needed to take matters into my own hands. So my first experiment was a cake donut with shrimp and scallions, which I glazed with brown butter, fish sauce, and sriracha.
“It sounded so good,” said Shannon. “We actually sat around and talked about how we’d make it, to see if we could.” But there’s nowhere in a donut shop to store and cook shrimp, and you’d need another dedicated fryer to cook them in, or the flavor transfer to sweet donuts would be horrible.
My next attempt was a yeast risen dough spiked with Totole chicken bouillon powder and parmesan cheese. This is an umami bomb and it just might be the greatest thing I have ever cooked.
“Making twenty-four of them for a party, that’s one thing,” said Shannon, “making twenty-four-hundred of them, consistently, in a grab-and-go donut shop, that’s something else.”
I had to concede that he was right. But I’m betting that other bakers are working on this project now and they will start a savory donut truck in the next year or so.
In the meantime, I suggest you take a yeast donut recipe, mix in a two-ounce shot of dissolved Totole, and fold some shredded parmesan into the mix. Fry them. I promise you, they won’t disappoint.