Prawns - King of the menu

As the Australian economy lags in a state of confusion, seemingly in sync with the rest of the modern world, the effects of a near 35 per cent shift in the value of the Australian currency in both an up and down direction over the past three years, is beginning to bite hard on all aspects of daily life for everyone involved in the food supply chain.

The seafood industry, which relies so heavily on both imports and exports is both indicative and a victim of this situation. Within the seafood industry, it is the prawn category which, along with a dramatic change in production and import regulations, has felt the effect the most of the explosion in international trade. Seafood imports have grown by nearly 250 per cent over the past 15 years, with an annual value of nearly $2 billion or over 74 per cent of the total value of the seafood we consume.

The real gross value of production of prawns in Australia has fallen by 15 per cent since 2000-01. This is the result of a 23 per cent fall in production quantity but a 14 per cent increase in average real wharf prices.

At the same time local producers have faced competition from imported prawns, particularly from Thailand, Vietnam and China. Approximately 60 per cent of Australia’s prawn production is sold on the domestic market, yet over the past decade the quantity of imported prawns more than tripled, while the import price nearly halved, albeit with a significant increase over 2016. This initially reduced the price that Australian buyers were willing to pay for domestic caught prawns but over the past 18 months we have seen both a renaissance of appreciation for domestic prawns and a dramatic increase in their cost to restaurants.

The demand for prawns at both foodservice and retail has never been stronger, especially for the larger grades of prawns, U6, U8 and U10, with both domestic and imported pricing at record highs. Curiously, the prawn industry grading refers to the number of pieces per pound, thus a U6 refers to a prawn which is actually 13 or 14 pieces to the kg or 75 – 80gm per each.

On the upside, never before has there been the range of species, grades, quality and preparation methods of prawns available to both the chef and the consumer.

Choosing which prawn to use, however, is not a simple task. There are literally dozens of species of prawns, from ones that are found throughout large areas of water to those confined to specific locations. Generally, they start life in the open sea when they hatch out in millions and move into the coastal areas, moving into the estuaries, lakes and inlets where they find food on the muddy and sandy seabeds, where they grow quickly before moving back out to sea.

Prawns are the scavengers of the seas, eating pretty much anything that they come across. Accordingly, prawns are a direct reflection of the environment in which they come from. This also gives them their amazing flavour and texture.

As a general rule, if you are going to use a prawn for a ‘hot’ dish, buy them green and cook them only once. If on the other hand you are going to use them for a salad or eat them as they are, buy them pre-cooked.

A prawn cooked from live and then refreshed in brine ice will always be firmer, crisper and sweeter than a dead, green prawn put through the same process. The saying ‘goes off like a prawn’ is too true. Prawns are arguably one of the most fragile proteins you will handle in your kitchen – handle them with care. When buying, always buy prawns where the catching or processing history is known or can be found. This doesn’t mean you can’t buy frozen, in fact, in the case of green prawns, this should be your preference, as the integrity and quality of a green prawn packed and frozen from live will almost always be superior to one which has endured days of variable handling in a ‘fresh’ state.

If you are buying frozen prawns, only defrost an amount suitable to a days use and consider the ‘refresh’ process – mix a brine ice slurry (approximately 300 grams of salt per five kilograms ice and one litre of water will be adequate to create a slurry suitable to defrost a five kilogram box of frozen prawns), and thaw the prawns in the slurry for around 90 minutes.

Whether fresh or de-frosted, a raw prawn’s tail should glow with bright colours, and the flesh should show translucent through firm shells with no discolouration at the base of the heads or legs. They should neither look nor feel soggy.

With a cooked prawn, see that it has all of its legs, feelers and eyes and that the tail has a firm spring in it. Smell it – it should have a crisp, clean iodine aroma, with absolutely no signs of ammonia, old fish or brackish water. Finally, peel it and give it a taste – it should be firm in texture and immediately sweet, with a long clean finish and no strong aftertaste.

Prawns vary in price almost as much as they do in quality – price is not necessarily an indicator of quality, but expect to pay more for wild than farmed and more as the size of the prawn increases. Generally, you can also expect to pay more for Australian produced prawns than imported.

Following are some of the more common varieties sold in Australia:

Tiger prawn – farmed
Most prawns farmed in Australia are black tiger prawns. These are available fresh during the run into Christmas and frozen year round. These are a good-looking prawn, pale brown to bluey-green with distinct grey, blue or black stripes. Once cooked, the black tiger prawns has a deep coral colour, has a distinct clean, light flavour and firm texture, which retains the natural juiciness of the prawn. Good flavour carriers, they are especially great for salads.

One of the most prolifically imported farmed prawns are of the black tiger variety. There are some excellent farms producing prawns throughout Asia and whilst the price has increased dramatically through 2016, they still represent good value.

Tiger prawn – wild
The wild tiger prawn is predominantly fished in Northern Australia. Brown in colour with distinctive tiger ‘stripes’ which are evident both in raw and cooked forms. They are caught year round, and are mainly found frozen ‘green’ or raw. The peak supply is in August through November and are characterised by a meaty, sweet flavour and firm texture – one of the most sought after by the Japanese for tempura preparations. The hero ‘Skull Island Tiger’ is the standout of this species.

King prawn
The most iconic of all prawns, the mighty king prawn is caught in a number of fisheries across Australia.

The king prawn has a cream to light brown body and are generally larger than tiger prawns. Legs and tail fin are a distinctive bright blue in the southern and western varieties and cream coral colour in the eastern king prawns. It has an intensely sweet, iodine flavour and when in best condition has a crisp firm bite like no other prawn in the world.

Highly versatile in both cooked and cold preparations this delicious eating prawn, is regarded by many as the true ‘King of Prawns’.

Red spot (king) prawn
The redspot (king) prawn is closely related to the king prawn, though often smaller, and coming mainly from the trawl fisheries in South East Queensland. As the name suggests, it has a distinctive red spot on each side of the body shell and is typically lighter in flavour and softer in texture than the king.

Banana prawn
Caught by trawlers off northern Australia, the banana prawn is abundant and thus cheaper than many other varieties. It is translucent to yellow in colour with tiny dark spots, a very sweet, softer textured prawn, which although quite fragile, is generally excellent value. Best used in hot, wet preparations such as curries, risottos and pasta’s. A farmed banana prawn is also available under the brand of Crystal Bay and is abundant and highly regarded by chefs and consumers alike.

Royal red prawn
Trawled mostly off the east coast of NSW, the royal red is a deep water prawn. It is pink to red even when raw, with a thick hard shell. It is usually sold as frozen meat, as it spoils quickly, and is an inexpensive alternative if prawn meat is to be chopped or minced. The royal red prawn is inappropriate for cold preparations and should not be barbecued.

Vannamei prawns
Small, cheap aquaculture vannamei prawns are imported frozen from South East Asia. And whilst light in flavour and often softish in texture, they are perfectly suitable for a range of preparations where a low cost, consistent quality prawn is required. Try to buy those ‘cooked from live’ and in this instance, price does matter as there are many grades/qualities and generally the more expensive vannemai from Thailand is the best.

There are a number of other prawns not listed here, and as there is a broad variety of sizes, flavours and textures, investigation is required to determine which suit your individual menu and pricing requirements.

One thing is for sure, the current prawn market offers plenty of options for the savvy chef. As we move into the peak trading period of the year, get out and enjoy the variety and versatility that prawns can bring to menus, you know it makes sense! 

John Susman is the director of the seafood industry agency Fishtales. For more views, insights and understanding of the seafood industry, visit thefishtale.com.au.