The first and most important thing you must understand about prawns is this: no matter how many of them you eat and no matter how familiar you are with various kinds of prawn dishes, the truth is that, when it comes to prawns, you know nothing.
Let’s take my own example. When I moved to Calcutta in the late 1980s, I was often asked if I liked prawns. I answered truthfully that I did. And indeed at dinner party after dinner party, many prawn dishes were served and I enjoyed them all.
After a few dinners, however, I began to notice that the other guests were regarding me with faint contempt. Did they really look at each other and give slight, barely discernible, shrugs each time I bit into a prawn? Or was I imagining it?
It turned out that no, it was not all in my head. My Bengali friends were indeed regarding me as a barbarian from Bombay who wasted good prawns.
Finally, somebody sat me down and explained the problem.
Did I realise that when I picked up the prawn, I only ate the fleshy tail part?
Well, yes of course. What was I expected to do? Eat the eyes? Lick the antennae? Slurp down all the nasty bits?
Indeed I was.
“What you fellows don’t realise”, I was told by a famous Bengali gourmet (“you fellows”, I imagine meant ‘non-Bengalis’) “is that the best part of the prawn is the head.”
Apparently I was meant to bite into the top of the prawn and then swiftly suck out the brain. “It is so tasty”, they kept informing me.
So I tried. And perhaps it was really tasty, but I didn’t quite get it.
Anyway what did I know? I was just a barbarian. I was prepared to admire Bengalis for their brains. But I drew the line at admiring the brains of their beloved prawns.
Eventually, I just gave up eating prawns at dinner parties lest hostesses regretted having wasted their prawn eyes and brains on me.
Nobody minded. Instead they looked at me pityingly and asked where I had learned to eat prawns.
“Bombay” I would reply, proud of the fishing tradition in India’s greatest port city.
More pitying looks. “Ah, seawater prawns,” they would say, shaking their heads sadly.
That is how I discovered that Bengalis only really liked freshwater prawns. “So sweet!” they would exclaim admiringly. “The flesh is really sweet.” Prawns from the sea, I was told, tasted of sewage.
Over time I got used to the Bengali way with prawns. But many other misconceptions took years to clear up.
I have no doubt that my Bengali hosts served prawns that were fished from a lake or a river that very morning. An ability to be able to judge the freshness of fish is the nearest that the most Bengali men come to a virility test.
But the truth is that many (perhaps even the vast majority) of the prawns in the Calcutta market had not been pulled out of the water by enterprising fishermen who hummed Rabindrasangeet as they went about this joyous task.
Over the last two or three decades, the balance has shifted from fished prawns to farmed prawns. Farmed prawns have never swum free in Bengal’s waters. They have been bred in tanks. And if you are filling water into a tank, it is easy enough to use sweet-water rather than salty seawater. So yes, the prawns that are served in Calcutta are often freshwater prawns. But they are, in effect, prawns that are mass-produced by a kind of industrial process.
Not so romantic, is it?
Nearly everything else I thought I knew about prawns also has turned out to be wrong. I had always believed that shrimps were smaller than prawns. Then, I realised that in America, for instance, large prawns were described as shrimps.
Finally, somebody explained it to me: it is the same fish, they said. Prawn and shrimp are different names.
Even that was wrong.
Prawn and shrimp belong to different species. But the difference is not size. The differences are anatomical: number of legs, shape of torso etc. In the kitchen, however, these biological differences don’t matter. Both species are cooked in much the same way and treated as interchangeable.
Moreover, we are far from clear on what a prawn actually is. In England, many (usually, cheaper) restaurants will serve a dish called scampi and chips. This consists of breaded shellfish of some kind with french fries. I assumed that beneath the bread-crumbs was a fish called scampi.
Scampi and chips is made with any kind of prawn or shrimp that is available. At some places, it is not even made with shellfish: one common scam was to use monkfish instead. There was so much breadcrumb topping that nobody could taste the damn fish anyway, so how did it matter?
Well, it mattered because there is actually a fish called scampi. It is the Italian name for the shellfish that the French call the langoustine. (Scampo is singular, scampi is plural.) When it says “Scampi” on the menu of a relatively expensive place, they mean langoustine. At a cheaper place they can legally sell ‘shrimp scampi’ a meaningless term. (Though it is illegal to pass monkfish off as scampi.)
As if all this is not confusing enough, there is a proper British name for scampi: Dublin Bay Prawn. Which is nice to know except, of course, that scampi/Dublin Bay Prawns are not prawns at all. They are a species that is closely related to the lobster.
So why do they call them prawns?
Who the hell knows!
In India, we have our own lobster-like prawn which we call Tiger Prawn. This is a large fish and is served at outrageous prices on restaurant menus. Often they will show you the raw tiger prawn before they cook it because it is a fish that looks as though it has swum to the shore from the bottom of the ocean.
In fact, nearly all the tiger prawn you are likely to be served in India has been cultured in a farm. It is the second most widely cultured shrimp/prawn in the world and our supplies come from Vietnamese fish farms or from our own farms. No fishermen are usually involved in the process of gathering tiger prawns.
With all of this confusion, I have given up trying to tell a shrimp from a prawn, a scampo from a shrimp, or a fished prawn from one that is industrially produced.
What I have noticed is that the popularity of shrimps/prawns is growing all over India. Bengalis will kill me for saying this (though who knows: they may just shake their heads sadly) but I reckon that the current popularity of prawns has very little to do with taste.
People like them because they usually don’t smell fishy. At most restaurants they will be served without heads and antennae so they don’t even look like water creatures. And most prawns sold in restaurants have usually been pulled out of the freezer so they are an easy option for the kitchen: no need to worry about getting supplies of fresh fish.
I know that, like every food writer, I am expected to turn my nose up at frozen prawns, but here is the truth: I use frozen prawns when I cook at home.
Admittedly my prawns go into fried rice, stews and the like so their flavour is not as important as it would be if I was making some fancy Bengali dish.
There is a danger with frozen prawns: they can get tough while cooking and unless you are confident that the cold chain has been maintained, there are real risks of contamination.
The trick seems to be to freeze the prawns shortly after you pull them out of the water. I used to buy my frozen prawns in Bangkok but now I use the ITC prawns, which are frozen right after they come out of the water and in my experience, they remain tender and juicy through the cooking process.
However I am not sure how much that matters to most people. In my experience, most North Indians don’t care how rubbery their prawns are, let alone how fresh they taste. At Delhi restaurants, size is everything. Customers want the largest prawns believing, bizarrely, that their size makes them better. In fact, the opposite is true. The smaller the prawn the more flavourful it will be.
So are we moving away from the traditional Indian ways of eating prawns?
Yes, we are. They may weep in sorrow in Calcutta but most Indians who eat prawns do not suck the brains out. Nor are prawns served fresh for the most part. And even when they are not frozen, they are rarely ‘wild’ or fished. Usually, they are farmed, a process that inevitably, affects the flavour.
If you are a purist, then I imagine you could regret these developments.
But me? Well, as they explained it to me, way back in the 1980s. I am a barbarian.
So do I really care that much?
I guess not.