13 Ways of Looking at a Prawn

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I

Through the crispness of a cracker. Served as pre-dinner appetisers at Asian restaurants the world over.

Made by sun-drying then deep-frying a mixture of tapioca flour, water and crushed crustaceans, prawn crackers (or shrimp puffs) are variations on a traditional Indonesian staple, krupuk udang. Krupuk crackers, prawn-based or otherwise, are ubiquitous daily snacks in Indonesia and Malaysia.

II

As a potential saviour of the oceans they inhabit.

Crustacean exoskeletons are rich in chitin, which through a process of deacetylation can be converted to chitosan, a material whose uses range from filtering wine to treating open wounds. Tests conducted by researchers from Nottingham University and the University of the Nile in 2018 concluded that chitosan derived from shrimp shell waste could also be used as a material to make strong but degradable, non-toxic shopping bags, as a potential alternative to plastic.

III

Let’s say what we mean: while academics, biologists and producers disagree among themselves, in common language shrimp and prawn means the same thing, and the FAO treat them as such. As a rough rule, which term to use depends mostly on how big they are (prawns are bigger than shrimp) and where you are (Brits and commonwealth countries usually say prawns, while North Americans say shrimp).

In terms of eating, we’re only really talking about around 20 of the 3,000 species of decapoda crustacean that fall into two suborders, dendrobranchiata and pleocyemata, to differentiate them from crabs, lobsters, and others. These 3,000 diverse species vary significantly but are mostly scavengers, found in fresh and salt water from the equator to the poles, at all ocean depths.

IV

You’re from Austria? Well then, let’s put another shrimp on the barbie! Let’s not

that’s dumb. But dumber is the way we do it

without knowing where it comes from.

Hiding on the seafloor, your antenna showing

you have a good seven years, seven weeks in a box

so prawn cocktails may be a thing of the past.

V

In 2014, a six-month investigation by The Guardian revealed that prawn production in Thailand relies heavily on slave labour. Human trafficking, unpaid work, beatings, and even executions were found to be widespread on Thai fishing boats manned by foreign workers (many from Burma and Cambodia), who are sold like animals and kept on these boats against their will, some for several years at a time. These boats reportedly supply fishmeal to Thai-based Charoen Pokphand, the world’s biggest prawn farming company. They use it to feed the prawns they breed and sell all over the world, including to the four biggest global supermarket conglomerates: Carrefour, Walmart, Costco and Tesco.

Since this report broke – and despite pledges from the Thai government and the creation of a Sustainable Seafood Taskforce in 2015 – very few industry controls and little tangible change, if any, has been made in the country, according to Human Rights Watch.

VI

All types of prawn and shrimp are high in protein, omega-3s and healthy cholesterol, while extremely low in saturated fat. They also contain plenty of iodine, calcium, and other micronutrients.

Increasingly productive, if destructive, production methods keep numbers up and prices down, and demand for prawns as both a cheap source of vital nutrients and a status food continues to grow dramatically each year. One prediction pegs the global prawn market to almost double in the next decade, from around €11 billion in 2018 to €21 billion before 2030.

VII

You do not want to mess with a pistol shrimp. This diminutive sea creature looks innocent enough, even tasty. But the snap of its pincers (which it first cocks back like loading a pistol, hence the name) produces a burst of bubbles so explosive it momentarily reaches the temperature of the sun’s surface. This stuns its prey, often other types of shrimp, with a sonic boom that is one of the loudest sounds in the world’s oceans.

VIII

Once associated with Southern hospitality and the stuff of steamy dreamboat romance, shrimp trawling had attained a bad name by the 1970s. It was inefficient and harmful to the environment, dredging up everything in its path (and discarding most of it). Since then, shrimp aquaculture, or marine shrimp farming, where shrimp and prawns are grown in high concentrations in indoor or outdoor tanks along coastlines, routinely pumped with antibiotics, has taken off.

The total global tonnage of farmed shrimp quadrupled between 1995 and 2018; the amount of whiteleg shrimp — which is now by far the world leader over the tiger prawn — alone increased 20-fold, or 2000%, just between 2000 and 2010.

IX

Some environmental entrepreneurs in Ecuador are attempting to develop sustainable, organic methods for farming shrimp and prawns. This would be most welcome in a country which, since the 1970s, has lost two-thirds of its mangrove forests to make way for whiteleg shrimp farms. Ecuador is the world’s third-biggest producer of farmed shrimp, behind only China and India. Together with Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand, these 6 countries produce over 75% of all shrimp and prawns eaten on the planet.

X

If you’ve ever been called a shrimp as a dig at your lack of physical stature, you have Middle English and Old Low German to blame: the term shrimp derived through Germanic shrempen to old English shrimpe, meaning to contract or wrinkle, from the Old Norse skorpna. Why the English — and subsequently Americans — then went on to bully thousands of species of marine decapod crustaceans by calling them this name, while German ended up with garnelen, is unclear.

XI

Female eyestalk ablation don’t sound pretty — and it ain’t. Still, ripping off the eyestalks of female prawns to induce them to ovulate and spawn is practiced, in some form, on many, many shrimp farms. Methods vary, from mechanically cauterising the antenna and instantly sealing the wound under anesthetic; to simply picking up a live prawn, slitting the eye with a razor blade, and tearing the stalk from the eye socket with your thumb and forefinger. You’re welcome, ladies.

XII

Excluding Antarctica, Africa is the only continent that is not currently a significant player in either eating or catching/farming shrimp. However, recent studies have shown that Lake Bunyampaka, a salt lake in western Uganda, is suitable for breeding the brine shrimp Artemia. If reliable broodstock can be sourced and aquaculture infrastructure develops here to make shrimp production viable on a bigger scale, it could provide a local, affordable source of nutrient-rich seafood — a precious commodity in a landlocked country.

XIII

“That’s about it,” Bubba tells Forrest, having just recited hundreds of ways to cook shrimp while cleaning pistols, polishing boots and scrubbing floors together during the Vietnam War.

Although the American restaurant chain named after the famous pals from Forrest Gump focuses primarily on fried shrimp, Bubba wasn’t wrong about the crustacean’s versatility: countless culinary incarnations range from Italian fritto misto di mare to fresh Asian prawn-mango salad and pungent pad Thai, a gluggy southern Creole-style gumbo to Belgian grey shrimp croquettes; and of course the Australian barbecue shrimp cliché immortalised in Hollywood by Crocodile Dundee and Lloyd Christmas.

This series is inspired by Wallace Stevens’ Thirteen Ways of looking at a Blackbird. David McKenzie looks every month at the most normal food you can imagine and offers a fresh view on it. In thirteen different ways.

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