As well as being part of the large and complicated shellfish family, prawns are also lumped into the category of “bottom feeders”. This unfortunate name means they feed on plankton, vegetable materials and micronutrients in the water.
While you might not think of prawns or seafood as having a season, they do, and the cold waters of winter sees prawns at their best. This is when the spawning cycle begins and also when the cooler waters are more nutrient-rich, thus an excellent time for prawns to eat and breed.
Contrary to the Australia aesthetic of summer, filled with barbecues and Christmases spent devouring seafood, this is actually a time when fish markets and prawn farmers struggle to meet the demands of the prawn-hungry public.
Prawns can be found in both fresh and salt water, and are sold either cooked (that bright orange colour), or raw (when they’re green). Once prawns are caught, they’re either treated with sodium metabisulphite, a preservative, and then snap frozen, or they’re immediately boiled on the boat there and then. This is because fresh prawns oxidise very fast and will quickly discolour.
As with all ingredients with a short shelf life, humans have adapted many ways of preserving this unstable product. Prawn crackers are a perfect example, made with tapioca or rice starch, where the ingredients are blended and dried, leaving a product that will last forever. They also do clever things when fried, producing that tingly sensation when you drop one on your tongue. Blachan, used frequently in South East Asian cooking, is another, stinkier, version of this. A paste that is also dried but then left to ferment in the sun, it’s a sticky mixture with a distinctive taste. The English also have a version of prawn paste, but it’s milder; the prawn meat is first cooked and then pounded with butter and seasoning, becoming something you can spread on toast.
Are you a prawn or a shrimp?
Technically, prawn and shrimp are interchangeable words. Mostly, it’s a cultural difference: in America, shrimps refer to the smaller of the species, while prawns are big, and here in Australia, this term has become our word of choice.
The smallest varieties of fresh prawns are school or harbour prawns – tiny little creatures that are sweet and delicious, often served deep-fried. They’re so small, in fact, that they’re cooked and eaten whole.
On the other end of the scale we have King prawns, large with lots of juicy flesh. Two excellent types are the ones from Spencer Gulf just north of Adelaide and Yamba prawns found in NSW, on the edge of the Queensland border.
Tiger prawns are also very popular and so named for their distinctive striped appearance. They’re firm fleshed and their flavour isn’t as strong or sweet, a fact often overlooked due to their glamorous appearance. Banana prawns, which have a faint yellow tinge to their flesh, are sweet, mild and easy to find. Less well-known are Endeavour prawns; they are harder to find, but highly sought after for their delicious taste.
A question of taste
Raw prawns were something I’d always sworn against until I was confronted with some dancing shrimps served to me in a jar of ice at René Redzepi’s Noma in Copenhagen. It’s a four-time winner of best restaurant in the world, so it would have been churlish of me to refuse. They were tiny, jumping about, and had a delicate sweet flavour and an excellent little crunch. Another time, I was in Tokyo at a restaurant called Kyubei, where I was fed prawn sashimi; generally the texture of this bothers me to no end. I watched in horrible anticipation as the prawn was prepared in front of me, still alive and flailing about. It was quickly and cleanly dealt with and then presented to me still quivering. Once I bit into it, I was instantly converted – this was the sweetest, firmest fleshed thing I’ve ever eaten.
Another thing I’ve always been slightly wary of is pasta with gamberi (prawns) despite their great Italian tradition. That said, there was a particular dish made with a rich prawn stock and spaetzle that was one of the best things I’ve ever eaten. If there is any one reason to buy raw prawns, it’s being able to use the shells to make stock. It’s a surprisingly quick process, leaving you with the very essence of prawn.
As for chargrilled prawns, I usually find the smell slightly overwhelming, which is until I’m eating the ones they cook at Ester, an excellent restaurant in Chippendale, Sydney. They’re split open, revealing the great flavours found in the head, tomalley or coral, and then baked in the wood-fired oven and served with chargrilled cos, soy butter and capers. It’s a delicious dish I could eat forever.
Despite all the fancy, there’s one sure-fire way to serve me prawns: simply boiled whole. There’s something about sitting around, peeling off the shells and dipping the sweet flesh into a aïoli or some sort of chilli sambal. I find this deeply satisfying.
Photography by Benito Martin. Styling by Lynsey Fryers. Food preparation by Suresh Watson.
Prawns from Cleanfish Australia, 10 Baker St, Banksmeadow, NSW.