Cracking the Code – Your Guide to Cooking Prawns

Hubba Bubba
One of my favourite food quotes from the movies is not inspirational in the sense it’ll make you want to better your life this minute. Okay, actually, it does exactly that; it makes you want to get up and go do something—it’s so full of ideas packed into all of sixty two words. Here it is:
“Anyway, like I was sayin’, shrimp is the fruit of the sea. You can barbecue it, boil it, broil it, bake it, saute it. Dey’s uh, shrimp-kabobs, shrimp creole, shrimp gumbo. Pan fried, deep fried, stir-fried. There’s pineapple shrimp, lemon shrimp, coconut shrimp, pepper shrimp, shrimp soup, shrimp stew, shrimp salad, shrimp and potatoes, shrimp burger, shrimp sandwich. That- that’s about it.” ̶ ‘Bubba’ Blue in Forrest Gump.
In the movie, Bubba’s shrimp blabber became the reason Forrest gets into the shrimping business and starts the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company. In real life, the movie producers came up with the idea of opening a restaurant by the same name, the mainstay of the menu being shrimp.
Prawns and shrimp may be different biologically, but they’re both incredibly delicious.
Shrimp and prawns may be interchangeably used sometimes, but they’re not really the same thing. The two terms may be used to refer to size, but there are jumbo shrimp, even if that sounds like an oxymoron, and small prawns. The difference could also be attributed to geographical semantics—‘shrimp’ is commonly used in the US, while ‘prawn’ can be heard in UK, Australia and other Commonwealth nations. They both refer to decapod crustaceans, and can be both fresh water-and salt water-bred. They’re both quick to cook and delicious. So the difference—and there is some difference—is all biological. As this article succinctly sums it up, “shrimp have branching gills, a side plate that overlays segments in front and behind, and carry their eggs outside of their bodies beneath their tails. Prawns have lameller gills, side plates that overlap tile-like from front to back, and carry their eggs inside their bodies near their tails”. 
This and That
Hello there, you gorgeous Goan curry
Still confused? Forget all that anatomical and reproductive differentiation; what good would remembering all that do anyway when a portion of Kerala chemmeen roast, fragrant and robust with black pepper, curry leaves and green chilli looks you in the eye? You wouldn’t be saying “Hello there, Mr. Shrimp. Or is that Ms. Prawn?” hopefully. There are, of course, differences between the males and females of both groups, but, that means getting into biological trait territory again.
What’s fun to know however is that there are about 2000 species of prawns and shrimps across the world. They’re typically omnivorous; “they are called the pigs of the sea, since they are scavengers”, explains Bijal Patel, Fishvish cofounder. This is also why they are bottom dwellers of the oceans, seas, rivers and ponds they are found in. The varieties of prawns commonly found in India include the Indian white prawn, black tiger prawns, green tiger/flower prawn, giant river prawn (freshwater scampi), Vannamei or Pacific white shrimp etc. The Vannamei variety was introduced in India in 2009, but has caught on quickly as a major export earner. What are known as freshwater scampi in India are commonly called giant river prawns elsewhere; Bengalis call these ‘golda chingri’. The Indian prawn is known as ‘jhinga’ in Hindi, and ‘chemeen’ in Malayalam.
Prawns are low-fat and quick easily.
All of these varieties have their own distinct colours and sizes; the black tiger prawns are called thus on account of the coloured ‘stripes’; the flower prawns are more pink. Most kinds of prawns and even shrimp, for that matter, turn a shade of pink when cooked. The meat is delicate, and like most other seafood, has very little connective tissue and fat, and cooks quickly. Low in fat and carbs with an outstanding protein content, prawns are a dieter’s dream. An equivalent portion of this super seafood will give you the same amount of protein as chicken, at half the calories. The cholesterol content in prawns are concerning for some; however, the aplenty Omega 3 fatty acids, thrice the Omega 6 content is associated with reduced risk of heart attacks and blood pressure. The B-complex vitamins, iron, selenium etc. these funny-looking creatures pack in only makes the ride merrier.
Smells of the Sea, not ‘Fishy’
Fresh catch smells of the sea.
Of course, it’s important to preserve these crustaceans well, to partake of the full wallop of nutrition. If maintained at a constant low temperature, right since the time of catching, they should be OK to eat within 3-4 days. Frozen prawns are another great option, since they are flash frozen quickly after being caught, and the cold chain cycle is better managed. To thaw, simply leave the frozen shellfish in the refrigerator for 10-12 hours, like you would for other frozen seafood. Shelled prawns are the easiest to use, but look out for the ‘vein’, when buying from local markets. It’s important to remove the digestive tract before cooking prawns, and can be easily done at home with a small sharp knife.
Prawns, as most of us know, are a light, tasty meat with a flavour mildly distinct on their own, but one that will meld easily with other ingredients. The most widely consumed seafood in the world, (the average person in America alone consumes 4 pounds each year), this is the reason that give prawns and shrimp their popularity. See Bubba’s sixty two-word speech above? Yes, prawns too can be cooked all those ways and more. However, that caveat about overcooking seafood stands strongest with prawns. A minute or two on medium heat should be enough to get them to ‘done’. How do you know when your prawns are cooked through? “They turn opaque and pink, and curl up”, shares Shumu Gupta, FishVish cofounder. For curries, remember that they continue to cook further in the broth, even after being taken off the heat.
Hooked and Cooked
As for cooking ideas—just skimming the length and breadth of our country’s coasts will give you diverse recipes for every kind of prawn dish. From rich curries to spice-laden stir fries, crisp patties and samosas to comforting pulaos and khichdis, we love our jhingas. Take Bengal—besides bestowing on us its bounty of ambrosial desserts, Bengal gave us chingri chop and that better-than-mishti malai kari. Or Kerala, that has made konchu roast and pollichathu everyday items. Or Goa—if balchao, reachado and hooman curries weren’t enough, there’s the empanada- or karanji-like, if you will, rissois de camarao—a Portuguese pastry with an Indian touch. There’s Maharashtra—the Konkan coastline and the exhilarating cuisines it ensconces makes for the perfect vacation. Maharashtra also is the birthplace of an unlikely Punjabi-Maharashtrian collaboration that made the most of a Punjabi fried fish recipe with fresh catch from a Mumbai fishing village. We should be thankful for Prawns Koliwada more than America is grateful for popcorn shrimp; we after all, have a much tastier version.
Garlic and prawns are best friends.
Garlic and prawns seem to be a favourite pair the world over. Bijal shares his favourite recipe of butter garlic prawns that uses copious amounts of butter and garlic and a bit of chilli for heat. Shumu loves using chopped prawns to stuff everything from squid to chicken. Prawn tikka is another Indian grill fave; easier to skewer and cook than delicate fish. Some Indian prawn-based rice dishes use stock made from shrimp heads for that delicate yet distinct flavour to permeate through. A CKP-style kolambi (prawn) khichdi is a superlative example of this relatively lesser-known-to-Indian-cooking technique. Also seen along the coastline, as well as landlocked interiors is the prevalent use of dried shrimp. These are sundried, sometimes with a little salt, and used to make relishes and even curries, especially in the monsoon, when fresh catch is harder to find. 
Dried shrimp is, of course, coveted the world over, and particularly so in Southeast Asia, for the ‘umami’ it brings to a dish. Each Southeast Asian country has its own version of dried shrimp and prawns that can make all the difference to a dish. Shrimp paste, made from fermented ground shrimp, is another hallmark of Asian cooking. 
Stir prawns with garlic, chilli and parsley in olive oil, serve with garlic bread for a quick weeknight dinner. Mix into hot spaghetti or linguine with tomato sauce and basil for a welcome break from meatballs. Scatter on pizza with parmesan for a fun pizza night. Make Thai curry with prawns instead of chicken or tofu. Cook briefly, cool and toss with salad greens with an Asian-inspired fish sauce-chili dressing. There’s so much you can do, and it’s all quick and easy.
Fine Wine
Prawns in white wine taste as beautiful as they look.
Seafood and white wine are supposed to be a nonpareil pairing, but a fruity rosé may go even better with prawns in a rich sauce or with an aioli. For spicy grilled prawns, an off-dry Riesling may be the perfect accompaniment; with milder, smoky shrimp, a fresh Grigio works great. With salads and other dishes with herby notes, a grassy Sauvignon Blanc could be considered. Cooking with wine is a better idea of course; a simple stir fry with butter and garlic begs for a dry white. A prawn linguine in a creamy tomato rosé sauce makes for a quick, elegant dinner; serve it with the same wine that you used to cook.
Can’t Get Enough
You can never have too much of prawns
The most favourite prawn and shrimp dishes across the world come in all manners of delicious. From drunken shrimp and dumplings from China, to potted shrimp and the classic prawn cocktail from UK; New Orleans-style BBQ shrimp, gumbo and etouffee from Louisiana to ceviche from Peru—a lifetime may not be enough to get enough of prawns. But, it’s never too late to begin. 

About the Author
An incorrigible gastronome, Rupika V is on a perpetual quest to find the best food around, and will happily travel far to find it.

Image Credit: Cover
Image Credit: Prawns & Shrimp
Image Credit: Goan Curry
Image Credit: Low Fat Prawns
Image Credit: Smells of the Sea
Image Credit: Garlic & Prawns
Image Credit: Prawns in white wine
Image Credit: Too much of prawns

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