Saturday, May 18, 2013


Shrimp and garlic sizzle in oil.
First you catch a tantalizing whiff of garlic. Then, as the cazuelita is set before you, you feel the heat radiating from the little dish. The lid is lifted and the oil spits and splutters. Small pink shrimp, golden slices of garlic and deep red flecks of chili dance in the oil. Now a taste—don’t burn your tongue!

Gambas al ajillo—shrimp sizzled with garlic— this is the essence of the tapa bar sensory experience.

In bars in Andalusia, this tapa is known as gambas al pil pil, for the onomatopoeia of spitting oil. But MadrileƱos look askance at such nomenclature, seeing as how “pil pil” in Basque cuisine is something quite different (an emulsified sauce for salt cod, with olive oil and garlic).

In tapa bars, the dish is prepared to order in small, individual cazuelitas, earthenware ramekins. You can do this in a home kitchen by placing the individual ramekins directly over gas burners. If using earthenware, remember that it retains heat, so remove the shrimp from the stove before they are fully cooked.

If you have an electric stove, you will need to use a heat diffuser under clay cazuelas or else use a metal pan instead of clay. If you don’t want to bother with individual servings, cook all the shrimp in a skillet, then plate them. While  they won’t have quite the same sizzle, they will still taste divine!

This dish packs a lot of flavor for just four ingredients—shrimp, olive oil, garlic and a few flecks of hot chili. The juices from the shrimp flavor the oil, creating a sauce for dipping chunks of bread.  It’s best made with whole fresh shrimp, peeled shortly before cooking. However, not everyone can get them fresh, so frozen is an alternative.

Unpeeled shrimp (langostinos)
Incidentally, you and I say “shrimp,” no matter what the size of the crustacean (unless you’re a Brit, in which case you call it “prawn”), but Spaniards have names for every variety. So, in fact, the ones pictured here are not “gambas,” but “langostinos.” That's because the gambas at the market today were very small indeed.

Why are gambas al ajillo usually depicted as jumbo shrimp with their tails intact? Maybe food stylists think they’re prettier with unpeeled tails aloft. In fact, this dish is usually made with small to medium shrimp and always with the whole shrimp peeled, tails as well. No way are you going to use your fingers to pick them out of the boiling oil. They’re meant to be speared with a fork or toothpick and eaten in one bite, with bread for sopping up the juices.

Variations on a theme: Add a splash of manzanilla Sherry to the shrimp. Or, add chopped serrano ham or chopped chorizo along with the sliced garlic.

Shrimp sizzled with chorizo, plated.

Gambas al Ajillo
Shrimp Sizzled with Garlic

Serves 4.

40 medium-size raw, peeled shrimp, about 8 ounces
8 tablespoons olive oil
4 cloves garlic, sliced crosswise
4 slices dried chili pepper
2 tablespoons dry Sherry (optional)
Chopped parsley
Pinch of coarse salt
Bread for serving

If making individual servings, place 2 tablespoons of oil in each of 4 cazuelitas or small pans. Divide the garlic, chili and shrimp between them.

Otherwise, place the oil in a skillet with the sliced garlic and chili. Heat until the garlic begins to turn golden. Add the shrimp in a single layer. Cook them, stirring, until they turn pink, 30 to 40 seconds. Add the Sherry, if using, and cook 1 minute.

Remove the pan from the heat. Sprinkle with parsley and salt. Spoon the shrimp, garlic and juices into 4 individual ramekins or plates. Serve with bread.


  1. Sounds gorgeous. My mouth is watering!

    1. Strangerthanfiction: Can't you just smell that garlic? The aroma is enough to get your mouth watering.

  2. oh wow, this looks amazing! one of those simple yet delicious dishes.

    1. Dina: Simple it is, and with taste more than the sum of four ingredients.

  3. I can smell the gambas al ajillo from the Pacific Northwest. Such good memories! --Anne

    1. Anne: sizzle some up right now and they will take you right back to the tapas bar in Spain.

  4. Nice. But sacrilege to peel the prawns. Shell adds flavour to the oil and prevents them drying. You should also eat the shell.

    1. Anonymous: You're so right--for gambas a la plancha, on the grill, they are never peeled. But this little tapa, with bubbling hot oil, you wouldn't want to get your fingers into. Now, as for eating the shells---sounds rather indigestible to me.