Prawns & shrimp

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 June, 2006, 12:00am

The words 'prawns' and 'shrimp' are used interchangeably on menus, unless the chef is using

a specific variety.

What are they? Thin-shelled, scavenging crustaceans with legs and two claws. They can live in fresh or sea water and range in length from less than 1cm to over 15cm. There are thousands of varieties.

What are the differences? People have different ways of determining whether a specimen is a shrimp or a prawn. Some people use 'shrimp' for the smaller varieties; others use the term 'prawn' because they think it sounds more posh, while still others believe it depends on whether it lives in fresh or sea water. According to an online essay, Biology of Shrimps by the Museum of Victoria, prawns have shell sections that overlap like roof tiles while shrimp have a large mid-section shell that overlaps the front and back shell segments. The essay also claims female shrimp incubate their egg clusters on their bodies while prawns shed their eggs. This doesn't help much if you're trying to identify a male prawn/shrimp.

What to look for? Most shops and wet markets, don't identify prawns/shrimp in the same way a biologist would, and it probably doesn't matter. What matters most is freshness. If possible, buy the prawns alive and jumping. If they're dead, make sure they smell fresh and sweet, with no scent of ammonia, which indicates decomposition. Size matters and depends on their intended use. Peeling small varieties can be time-consuming, yet buying expensive 'jumbo' prawns and cutting them into bite-size pieces is a waste of money.

How are they available? Fresh, frozen, dried and made into fermented pastes. If fresh crustaceans are available, don't bother with frozen varieties; they lose much of their flavour and crisp 'bite'.

What else? Don't throw away the heads. Even if you don't like sucking out all the delicious juices, you can use the heads to make broths.

How to use? If they're very fresh, the best way to enjoy prawns is to boil them and eat them - preferably dipped in a soy-chilli mixture (see recipe, left). This sauce is light and lets the meat's sweetness come through, unlike a heavy cocktail sauce. Raw fresh prawns are also delicious, but they should be purchased only from reputable dealers. Serve the shelled meat with soy sauce and a little fresh wasabi, or dice the meat and mix with soy sauce, sesame oil, minced spring onions and a little grated ginger for an easy tartare.