For Italian food, there is garlic bread; for Indian food, there is Bombay mix. For Chinese food, the ubiquitous and much-overused side snack that sort of resembles some kind of traditional cuisine is prawn crackers.

Prawn crackers are roughly circular, and are typically between five and ten centimetres in diameter and a few millimetres thick. In theory, prawn crackers should be light and crispy; in practice, their texture more often resembles grease-coated styrofoam. In terms of colour, they range from slightly off-white through light yellow or pink, depending upon when the deep fat fryer was last cleaned and how many additives were used.

The taste varies. Despite allusions to the contrary from the name, prawn crackers rarely taste particularly like prawn. More commonly they have a generic fish-flavouring taste; indeed, one research project suggests that few prawn crackers contain any actual prawn 1. This is not without historical merit — traditional Asian crackers were often made from crab or whatever fish happened to thrive in the region.

Prawn crackers are usually bought in a packet or, for restaurants, in a large sack. They can, with much difficulty, be made from raw ingredients in a regular kitchen, but it takes a lot of effort. The basic starting point is tapioca flour or a similar source of starch, which is made into a dough, steamed and then deep fried. Getting the specifics correct seems to be somewhat of a black art.

In sit-in restaurants, prawn crackers are usually served in a bamboo dish. In decent restaurants, this dish is actually made from real bamboo. Takeaways will instead use an unceremonious greasy paper bag — the choice between white or brown is left to the proprietor.

Prawn crackers should not be confused with shrimp chips, which are a slightly different and largely American variation upon a traditional Asian theme.

anthropod says that in Thailand they dip the crackers into nam prik phao as an accompaniment. She also says that you can buy prawn crackers and deep fry them at home, which is cool because they look like guitar picks till you drop them in oil, and then they puff up.

1: The European Union Contest for Young Scientists, Moscow, 2005: "How fishy are prawn crackers?", Andrew Adam, Katy Steel and Emma Lindsay.