Food That Moves: Pan-fried California Spot Prawns

One thing about growing up in an Asian household — we’re not squeamish about meeting our dinners before they’re on the plate. The fresher the better, my mom would always lecture, and you don’t get much fresher than when your meal is trying to crawl its way out of the kitchen sink. Surprisingly few of my friends (including the boy, who still prefers to not be around the kitchen until everything is good and dead) have had experience in the handling of live foods, though, so for them I present a brand new VK column — Food That Moves!

We begin with an old favorite of many west coasters, the California Spot Prawn. When our family went out to Asian seafood restaurants on special occasions, there would almost always be a tank full of these guys on display, and these critters were always first on the list for ordering. They’ve got this sweet, lobster-like meat which is as different from regular white shrimp as chocolate truffles from a Hershey bar. In fact, this is the shrimp regularly used in the western US for amaebi “sweet shrimp” sushi because of its excellent texture and flavor.

Before:

After:

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Based on my mom’s very simple recipe, and one of the most common ways to prepare these shrimp. Before we begin, though, please note that these particular shrimp must be prepared live out of necessity — there is a chemical in the head that starts excreting upon death which renders the meat mushy and inedible. So really, the only way to guarantee the best meat is to get them as feisty as possible and keep them that way up until they hit the skillet. So read on for an examination of a few local suppliers for these prawns and the cooking pictorial.

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I started my quest for the freshest of shrimps at Santa Monica Seafood in Costa Mesa, mostly because we pass by it often on the way home from our favorite breakfast place and it has an impressively large selection of hard-to-find aquatic delicacies. It took a few visits to buy the live ones depicted above, because they only get small shipments in a couple times a week and they are put on ice instead of kept in tanks. While the guys behind the counter are good about de-heading the shrimp the minute they expire, this wasn’t nearly as fresh as I knew I could get. They were fairly active because we’d come in the morning not long after they’d arrived, but on the medium to smallish side. At upwards of $18/lb, it’s not like the store couldn’t have afforded to have a small tank set up, either.

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This is Pearson’s Port in Newport Beach. As you can see, it’s little more than a shack at the end of a tiny dock, serviced by one small private boat. It’s family-owned, ringed with tank upon tank of prawns and whatever else Mr. Pearson caught that morning, and staffed by two lovely, knowledgeable ladies — Mrs. P and her daughter. No, really, if the bare-bones “we do one thing and we do it well” demeanor doesn’t get you, the quality will.

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I bought a couple pounds of prawns from them for a reasonable $16/lb (market prices vary, of course). They were some of the fattest monster prawns I’d ever met and put up a huge fight when being fished out. You can wander around the tanks and pick the ones you want, then they net them out and pack them securely in a bag of ice for transport. Infinitely more careful than the previous place, which had just rolled the shrimp up in paper and handed them to me. The ladies also keep up a highly entertaining chat while you’re shopping and will readily offer recipes, advice, and random informational tidbits. This was really the classic fishmonger experience that I’d read about in turn-of-the-century novels, a welcome surprise in this urban age and location. Considering I’ve lived most of my life in beach communities, it’s really rather sad that this was my first experience buying seafood straight from the people who caught it. Oh hey, the LA Times wrote a cool piece on them too.

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Last but not least, I drove down to Irvine to hit up the old standby, 99 Ranch Market. I saved this until last because I knew they would dependably have these shrimp (and just about any live seafood) no matter when I went — probably the only supermarket chain I’d feel comfortable making that claim about. They’re something of a given for any Californian of ethnic extract — there are very few who have not shopped here at some point, walking down those aisles jam-packed with various rices, tofus, soup mixes, and pungent bottles labeled in a dozen different Asian languages. And above that smell of spices and fresh produce, you can always catch a whiff of… fish. Because the entire back of the store is one huge seafood market — frozen, fresh, live, whatever you want, whichever way you want it. They’ll clean, steam, or fry just about any critter you choose, right there while you watch. They also have the lowest prices ($12-14/pound, depending on the sale that weekend) for prawns, though they were more on the medium to small side. You can try to point out the size you’d prefer, but netting them out of one huge tank makes it much harder to choose than several smallish tanks.

Overall, I’d probably continue going to 99 Ranch for a typical dinner craving (since I can pick up other groceries along the way), but would swing by Pearson’s if I were planning something special for guests. Unless I was in the market for some other hard-to-find piece of seafood, I can’t imagine ever buying prawns from SM Seafood again.

But enough of that — we have our prawns, now what? Here’s the very short list of ingredients:

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Minced garlic, mirin (or your cooking wine of choice), soy sauce, and cooking oil. If you use a non-sweetened cooking wine, you might want to add a bit of sugar as well.

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Cover the bottom of the skillet with a dollop of cooking oil — I use canola.

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Take your live shrimp — which you’ve either been keeping in the fridge or in the sink, depending on when you bought them — and toss them into the skillet. They should be well-rinsed prior to cooking, but otherwise untouched. Never store them in ice or tap water, because they will quickly die from the shock — they’re salt water animals, remember. Some people prefer to trim the long antennae and cut off the sharp “horn” nose so they take up less room in the pan. I have a pretty huge skillet, so I just toss them in whole. Cover the skillet, unless you want to play catch-the-shrimp as they try to leap out. Keep it covered until they stop moving — usually less than a minute.

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Sprinkle a teaspoonful of minced garlic (I used reconstituted dried garlic) over the shrimp. Or more, if you’re a garlic person.

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Drizzle soy sauce over prawns. I usually do this by eye so haven’t really measured — probably two tablespoons?

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Splash mirin/cooking wine over prawns. I use probably 2-3 tablespoons of that as well. Toss ingredients well, then cover and let the prawns cook until they’re opaque. This shouldn’t take more than five minutes — you don’t want to overcook them. The prawn juices will meld with the ingredients and make a fantastic savory sauce.

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The finished product! Spoon over some rice and cover liberally in sauce for a nice meal. Or just eat them plain straight from the skillet, shelling them and dipping the meat in the sauce. Be sure to suck the juice out of the heads, too — there’s no way to be neat about eating these things, and no fun in it, either. Also, be sure to save the shells and heads in a separate bowl for an excellent shellfish stock. I usually collect various shells in bags and stuff them in the freezer until I have enough for the stockpot. But that’s another post entirely…

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