Most prawns have a narrow, tapering body, under which the tail is curled. When raw, they are bluey-grey or, in the case of the smaller varieties, almost translucent. When cooked, the shells turn pink and the sweet, meaty flesh turns white tinged with pink; brief cooking is essential, otherwise the flesh will become tough.
Prawns fished in cold waters tend to be more flavourful than those from warm waters. The part of the prawn eaten, the meaty body, is referred to as the tail. The very small shellfish referred to as shrimps are prawns, too – the term shrimp just indicates their diminuitive size.
Shrimps are slightly more tender and delicate in flavour than prawns and are usually used as a garnish or in hors d’oeuvres. The delectable deep-sea prawns, generally served as a main course, should not be confused with the estuarine mud prawns, which are edible but can be unpleasantly gritty.
Once considered a luxury item, prawns and shrimps are becoming more popular for dinner parties because they are relatively inexpensive compared with the increasingly high cost of beef or lamb. Like all shellfish, they are low in kilojoules.
Prawns are found in a wide range of species and colours, and all have firm, sweet flesh. Medium-sized prawns are what’s on most seafood menus, especially in prawn cocktails, speared as kebabs, deep-fried or baked in a sauce.
You’ll get anything from 25 to 50 prawns in a 500 gram bag or box, depending on their size. But you’ll only get about 10 jumbo prawns, per 500 grams, and that depends on whether the heads are included.
The bigger the prawn, the more ‘special’ the character, ie, less delicate and sometimes even with a distinct salty tang. Tiger prawns, brown with dark branding, are as big as you’ll get in this shellfish category. They’re a favourite on the barbecue or buffet table and commercial farming has seen fishmongers well-stocked with this warm saltwater favourite.
- Where to Buy
- Canned and frozen shrimps and prawns are freely available in most supermarkets. Fresh ones are difficult to come by because the catch is almost always frozen at sea. Frozen shrimps are usually cooked, deveined and shelled although some shops stock whole uncooked shrimps. Frozen prawns come with or without the head and in the shell, or deveined and shelled. Whole frozen prawns are slightly cheaper than the other varieties.
- Although in South Africa we trawl our own deep-sea prawns off the KwaZulu-Natal coast, much of what is available is imported from Australia, Taiwan and Mocambique. Tiger prawns, with characteristic dark stripes, originate from Taiwan.
- Prawns vary considerably in size from the small prince prawns to the larger king and jumbo prawns. Budget for 100 grams of prawns per person for an average serving.
- Handling Frozen Shrimps and Prawns
- Frozen shrimps and prawns should be thawed completely for the best results. If they are frozen in a solid block of ice, remove from the freezer the night before. Leave in the bottom of the refrigerator until ready to use. Individually blast frozen prawns or shrimps (loose in a packet like frozen vegetables) need only 20–30 minutes to thaw at room temperature. If you are in a hurry, place the sealed plastic bag of frozen seafood in a bowl of warm water. It will then defrost in minutes. Raw prawns and shrimps have a glossy opaque appearance. If the outside flesh is pinkish, they are already cooked.
- Prepare Prawns
- If the prawns are shell-on, you’ll need to peel them. This can be done before or after cooking, but peeling them after cooking makes for a juicier, more flavourful prawn.
- Grip the body of the prawn in one hand and twist the head off with the other (this can be used to make stock). Turn the prawn over and pull the shell open along the length of the belly, working from the head end downwards, prising it open so that you can pull the prawn free.
- Once the shell is off, check to see if there is a black line running down the back of the prawn. This is the intestinal tract – if it’s black, it’s full. It’s not harmful to eat, but the prawn looks better without it, and it can be a bit gritty. Removing it is called ‘deveining’. Using a small, sharp knife, make a shallow cut along the length of the black line, then lift it out using the tip of the knife.
- To butterfly a prawn, peel and devein as above, leaving the tail on. Then make a deep cut along the belly of the prawn, open it out and press it down so that it’s flat. If you want the prawns to be straight, peel (leaving the very end of the tail on) and devein, then insert a wooden skewer along its length.
Cooking Shrimps and Prawns
Stir fry (2–6 minutes, according to size).
Grill or barbecue (3–4 minutes each side).
Poach (3–10 minutes, according to size).
Place thawed raw shrimps and prawns in boiling salted water to cover, bring back to the boil, and watch cooking time carefully from that point. Simmer for 1–2 minutes, then drain. Shell and devein, if necessary, according to the directions given below.
Canned shrimps and prawns are already cooked. Take care not to overcook as they will taste rubbery. Drain liquid and use as is, or heat through gently if using in a hot dish.
How to Devein and Shell Prawns
Note: Deveining and shelling prawns are fiddly time-consuming tasks. Although slightly more expensive, buy them ready processed for convenience unless you particularly wish to cook in the shell.
Pull off the tail shell
Twist off the head
Peel off body shell.
How to Devein Prawns Leaving Shells On.
With a pair of scissors slit open the back of the shell starting at the head end. If the head is attached, use a sharp knife to slit from head to tail.
Insert a toothpick beneath the vein until you have dislodged it.
Pull out the rest of the vein with your fingers.
Category: South African Cuisine
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