Know your crustaceans and molluscs from your echinoderms? If not, you’re not alone. While shellfish, from oysters and lobsters to prawns and mussels, are hugely popular in Australia, a few misconceptions about them persist, and we’re not taking as much advantage of some of the lesser known, but cheap and tasty, species as we could be.
“First and foremost, when people talk about shellfish, they don’t understand that this can be broken down into several categories. The words ‘shellfish’ and ‘crustacean’ tend to be used interchangeably, but, in fact, have very different meanings,” explains Gus Dannoun, supply manager at the Sydney Fish Markets.
The category “shellfish” encapsulates crustaceans, molluscs and echinoderms. Crustaceans refer to species with an exoskeleton and include familiar products, such as lobster, prawns and crayfish. “People tend to include things like oysters and mussels when they talk about crustaceans, but these are actually molluscs,” says Dannoun.
Bivales refer to species with two shells, such as oysters, pipis, clams or cockles, whereas univalves, as the name implies, only have one shell, such as abalone or periwinkles. Molluscs comprise invertebrate animals, including octopus, squid, calamari and cuttlefish, whereas echinoderms include lesser known, at least in Australia, species such as sea urchin and jellyfish, both of which are more popular in Asian markets.
Second only to Japan’s famous Tsukiji fish markets, the Sydney Fish Market offers the largest variety of seafood in the world. In Dannoun’s opinion, there are a number of under-appreciated shellfish varieties that have “untapped potential”.
“The blue mussel is one,” he says. “We have substantial operators growing them throughout Australia.” Another he nominates is the school prawn, which he calls “the forgotten prawn”. “It’s a harvested product that is a thin, small prawn, but has an incredibly sweet, lovely flavour and is easy to peel. People think of school prawns as the ones that are used for bait, but, in the regional areas, locals have basically grown up on them.”
Other products that are underutilised include cuttlefish. “They don’t have the nicest looking features, but, once you take the skin off and clean them up, they produce a tube almost like a squid, but a bit firmer, which cooks very well. People don’t buy as much of any variety of squid, as it’s not as sexy as calamari, but if you take Gold’s squid, for example, it’s available in abundance, produces equally good salt-and-pepper squid as calamari, and can cost as little as half the price.”
Australia’s most popular shellfish:
Dannoun estimates there are easily 20 species of prawns, farmed and wild, produced in Australia, possibly many more, ranging from the King Prawn and Black Tiger Prawn to the Banana Prawn. The one’s we’re most familiar with are the Black Tiger, Crystal Bay and farmed Banana Prawn. Serving:
Prawns require very little cooking, and it’s always better to undercook than overcook them as they toughen easily. Cooked prawns are lovely in salads and sandwiches or eaten cold with dip. Try them barbecued with a squeeze of lemon or served with a tomato-mayonnaise for the classic prawn cocktail. More elaborate ideas include Asian prawn curries, Spanish garlic prawns or French bisques.
There are more than 1,000 species of crabs worldwide, with most in Australia falling under the “swimmer” variety, including the popular Mud Crabs, Spanner Crabs and Blue Spanner Crabs. Crabs can be steamed, poached, stir-fried, deep-fried, grilled or barbecued. Serving:
Fresh, boiled crab is delicious served with melted butter and a squeeze of lemon juice. Otherwise, try Asian dipping sauces or use the picked meat in salads, pastas and egg dishes, such as omelettes and crab cakes.
Also known as spiny lobster, crayfish or crawfish, rocklobsters are different from freshwater crayfish, such as yabbies and marrons, and are not “true” lobsters, but are nonetheless very popular in Australia with many varieties available. You can steam, poach, deep-fry, pan-fry, bake, grill or barbecue rock lobster. Serving:
Serve cold boiled rocklobster split in half with mayonnaise, aioli, herbs, garlic, mustard, olive oil and lemon juice, or Asian dipping sauces, or use the meat in salads, pastas and other dishes where it is gently reheated rather than re-cooked.
Also known as yabbies, marrons and redclaws, freshwater crayfish (or crawfish, as they’re known in North America) are found in dams and creeks throughout Australia, however those commercially available are most often farmed. They’re great boiled, steamed, poached, stir-fried, baked or barbecued.
Serving: Extract the sweet flesh and serve with flavoured mayonnaise, fresh horseradish, mustard, olive oil and lemon juice, or cocktail sauce. Crayfish also pairs well with tomatoes, Asian flavours, curry sauces, fresh herbs and spring onions.
Australia has three main types of oysters – Sydney Rock Oysters, Pacific Oysters and Native Oysters. Sydney Rock Oysters are native to Australia and also known as Western Rock Oysters. Pacific Oysters are also called Coffin Bay or Japanese Oysters. They were introduced from Japan but are now grown in SA and NSW, while Native Oysters (also known as angasi, mud or Port Lincoln Oysters) are endemic to South Australia and are also grown in southern NSW. Serving:
Good oysters require little preparation other than opening, but can also be added to cooked dishes, fried, barbecued, baked or grilled. Serve raw with a squeeze of lemon, vinaigrettes, freshly grated horseradish, Ponzu sauce, light soy sauce, sesame oil and grated ginger, or a Bloody Mary shot.
Mussels and cockles
Australians are increasingly eating more mussel and cockle products, such as Vongole, but the mussel most are familiar with is the Blue Mussel. This variety is often mistakenly thought of as a Black Mussel, due to its outside shell (in fact, it takes its name from the blue tinge inside). Due to quarantine laws, New Zealand’s wonderful Green Lipped Mussels are only available here frozen, though they are still excellent. Serving:
Mussels and clams only take five minutes or so to cook, and there are many ways to prepare them. Try them steamed in white wine and herbs and garlic, or served with dipping sauce, or crumbed and fried or served in a gratin.
Squid and calamari
Squid and calamari are often confused, but the best way to tell them apart is by the side wings or flaps. If the flaps extend part way it is squid; if they extend the length of the body it is calamari. There are four main types seen in Australia: Loligo Squid, Gold Squid, Southern Calamari, and Northern Calamari. Serving:
They need either very quick cooking over a very high heat or very long, slow cooking over a very low heat, as anything else will make them tough. If cooking quickly, cook just until their translucent flesh turns opaque. Otherwise, braise gently until the flesh feels very tender. Whole tubes can be stuffed or baked; strips or rings can be dusted in seasoned flour and deep-fried, or marinated and char-grilled or stir-fried. The ink can be used to colour and flavour risotto and pasta.
There are more than 300 species of scallops worldwide, but Australia has only two available: Commercial Scallops and Saucer Scallops. The Commercial Scallops (also known as Tasmanian, King or Sea Scallop) have creamy flesh and are usually sold with their orange roe attached. The Saucer Scallop (also known as Queensland, White or Mud Scallops) has firm white flesh and are usually sold with their roe taken off on the half shell. Serving:
Scallops require little preparation and can be steamed, poached, fried, baked, grilled, barbecued or eaten raw (if sashimi grade). It’s always better to undercook them, leaving the centre translucent. Sear over high heat for just a few seconds. Partner them with a creamy sauce, in a gratin breadcrumb, or steamed on the half shell with an Asian dressing. The roe can be used to add flavour to pate and soups. The Sydney Fish Market’s YouTube channel features lots of great video advice, tips and techniques, such as how to shuck an oyster or clean and prepare cuttlefish.