PUERTO VALLARTA, Mexico — You’d have to try to miss the camarones embarazados on a walk along the beaches of Banderas Bay. Makeshift grills encased in bricks or rocks, exhaling the last puffs of smoke from early-morning cooking sessions, dot the shores. Soaked in a rich, burnished-red adobo sauce, head-on shrimp are threaded onto extra-long skewers, grilled until crisp and stuck in sand mounds, tempting passersby.
Ask locals and they’ll tell you camarones embarazados have been part of the culture of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, “desde siempre” — since forever. Juan Manuel Gómez Encarnación, a renowned local historian, recalled kids selling them at the beach as early as the 1940s.
Camarones embarazados translates to pregnant shrimp in Spanish, but the crustaceans aren’t carrying any eggs. The name is a play on words: “En vara” means on a stick, and “asado” means roasted. When you put it all together, “en vara asado” sounds a lot like “embarazado.” The dish, with its memorable, funny name and its flavorful adobo, is making its way to indoor dining.
The popular snack, often trotted up and down the shoreline by vendors, has shaken off the sand and jumped from fast beach bite to must-order menu item at resorts and restaurants.
The fever for them has spread beyond the bay, which touches the states of Jalisco and Nayarit. Variations can be found along Mexico’s Pacific Coast and into the Yucatán Peninsula. You’ll find some in their traditional head-on form and others that are headless and peeled. All are delicious, but versions with the head are an overall richer experience: The shell provides crunch and packs flavor as the adobo roasts around it.
There are as many takes on adobo as there are cooks, and we all hold our adobo recipes as close to our hearts as one does a good secret.
Most adobos are a concoction of several kinds of dried chiles and spices, along with a splash of vinegar. But it is the addition of Mexican chocolate that makes certain camarones embarazados vendors sell out time and again, said Oscar Rodriguez, a cook and waiter in Nuevo Vallarta, in a tone that felt almost like a whisper. Not only does it give the adobo a deeper caramel color and lip-smacking texture, but it balances the heat and tang of the sauce as well. Some cooks also use butter to help the shrimp caramelize as they cook — a newer but welcome modification. (It’s hard to argue against cooking any kind of shrimp with butter.)
But the dish’s essence remains unpretentious: messy, off-the-coals shrimp that are so good, you will want to eat the heads, shells, tails and everything in between.
Camarones Embarazados (Adobo Grilled Shrimp)
Total time: 1 hour, plus cooling and marinating
Makes: 6 to 8 servings
- 1 pound ripe tomatoes
- 4 dried guajillo chiles, stemmed and seeded
- 2 to 3 dried chiles de árbol, stemmed
- 3 garlic cloves, peeled
- 2 scallions, white and light green parts only, cut into 1-inch pieces
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
- 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 ounces Mexican chocolate (see Tip), grated
- 1 teaspoon coarse kosher salt, more for seasoning
- 2 pounds large head-on shrimp or headless shrimp, with or without shells
- Lime wedges, for serving
1. In a medium saucepan, combine the whole tomatoes, guajillo chiles, chiles de árbol and garlic cloves, and cover with water by 1 or 2 inches. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce heat to medium and simmer until the tomatoes are very soft and their skins start to break, 8 to 10 minutes. (The chiles should rehydrate and plump up.) Using a slotted spoon, transfer the solids to a blender, and add the scallions, oregano, allspice, cumin, thyme, vinegar, butter, Mexican chocolate and salt. (Discard the cooking water.) Puree until completely smooth, then scrape the adobo into a large bowl and let cool completely.
2. Place the shrimp in the bowl with the cooled adobo and toss to coat. Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour and up to 24 hours.
3. When ready to eat, take the shrimp out of the refrigerator. Prepare an outdoor charcoal or gas grill for direct grilling over high heat. Thread the shrimp onto skewers and place on a sheet pan. If using head-on shrimp or shell-on shrimp, insert the skewer where the head meets the body, thread the skewer through the body while straightening it out, then push it out through the tail end. If using peeled shrimp, thread the skewer through the tops and bottoms of the shrimp without passing it through the length of the bodies. Once all are skewered, generously douse the shrimp with more adobo (reserve some for serving) and sprinkle a bit of salt on top.
4. Scrape the remaining adobo into a small saucepan or skillet and set over medium heat. Bring to a simmer and continue simmering, stirring constantly, for 3 to 4 minutes. Scrape into a serving bowl and set aside.
5. Set the skewers on the hot grill grate. For head-on shrimp, cook, flipping once, until the shells have crisped, browned and achieved some charring, and the bodies have cooked through, 3 to 4 minutes per side. For headless shell-on shrimp, grill for about 3 minutes per side, and for peeled shrimp, about 2 minutes per side. (If using a gas grill, close the lid between flips.)
6. Transfer the skewers to a platter and serve with the reserved adobo sauce and lime wedges. Let everyone eat by dipping the shrimp in the adobo sauce and squeezing fresh lime juice on top. The shrimp can be eaten in their entirety — heads, shells, tails and everything in between — or peeled.
Tip: If you can’t find Mexican chocolate, substitute 2 ounces grated bittersweet chocolate mixed with 1/2 teaspoon sugar and a pinch of ground canela or ground cinnamon.This article originally appeared in The New York Times.