Camarones Embarazados: A Grilled, Head-On Shrimp Recipe From Puerto Vallarta
PUERTO VALLARTA, Mexico – One should try to miss the embarazados camarones on a walk along the beaches of Banderas Bay. Makeshift grills embedded in bricks or rocks, exhaling the last puffs of smoke from morning cooking sessions, dot the banks. Dipped in a rich browned red adobo sauce, the shrimp with heads are threaded onto extra-long skewers, grilled until crisp and stuck in mounds of sand, tempting passers-by.
Ask the locals and they’ll tell you that embarazados camarones are part of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico’s “desde siempre” culture – forever. Juan Manuel Gómez Encarnación, a renowned local historian, remembers children selling them at the beach as early as the 1940s.
Camarones embarazados translates to pregnant shrimp in Spanish, but crustaceans do not bear eggs. The name is a play on words: “En vara” means on a stick, and “asado” means roast. When you put it all together, “en vara asado” looks a lot like “embarazado”. The dish, with its fun, memorable name and tasty adobo, is making its way to indoor dining rooms.
The popular snack, often browsed along the shore by vendors, has shaken off the sand and grown from a quick beach bite to a must-have menu item at resorts and restaurants.
The fever for them has spread beyond the bay, which affects the states of Jalisco and Nayarit. Variations can be found along the Pacific coast of Mexico and in the Yucatán Peninsula: you will find some in their traditional head shape and others without a head and peeled. All of them are delicious, but the versions with the head are a richer overall experience: the shell provides crunch and packs the flavor while the adobo roasts around it.
There are as many versions of adobo as there are cooks, and we all hold our adobo recipes as close to our hearts as a good secret.
Most adobos are a concoction of several kinds of dried peppers and spices, with a hint of vinegar. But it’s the addition of Mexican chocolate that makes some embarazados camarones vendors sell over and over again, Nuevo Vallarta cook and waiter Oscar Rodriguez said in a tone that almost sounded like a whisper. Not only does this give the adobo a deeper caramel color and a lip-smacking texture, it also balances the heat and spiciness of the sauce. Some cooks also use butter to help the shrimp caramelize while cooking – a newer but welcome change. (It’s hard to object to cooking any kind of shrimp with butter.)
But the essence of the dish remains unpretentious: messy, fresh shrimp that tastes so good you’ll want to eat the heads, shells, tails and everything in between.
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