Why are B.C. Spot Prawns so special?
B.C Spot Prawns are known for their sweet and delicate ocean flavour. They are the largest species of all commercial prawns found on the West Coast of Canada and have an exceptionally firm texture when handled and cooked properly. Sushi chefs around the world have long regarded this delicacy for these reasons and for their beautiful colour and shape.
The amino acid glycine, also present in elevated levels in lobster, King crab and Dungeness crab, are responsible for the particularly sweet flavour of B.C. Spot Prawns. Our cold and clean coastal waters are rich in healthy feed, including plankton and other shrimp, resulting in high levels of omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin E. They’re also low in saturated fat and an excellent source iron, zinc and iodine!
Buying Spot Prawns
Spot Prawns are available fresh at the start of the commercial fishing season in May. This year, the fishery opened May 15th and lasted 37 days.
We have worked for decades with our fishers to learn how to best process prawns so that you receive a world-class product. Here are a few important things we have learned and apply to our own processing:
Prawns need three variables to stay alive; oxygen, temperature and salinity. Fresh water will kill them within a minute. Lack of oxygen can be tolerated at low levels for hours at a time as long as the temperature can remain between 2 degrees and 4 degrees. Around this level of temperature, prawns become dormant and their oxygen consumption dramatically decreases. It is therefore our goal to get prawns to a dormant state as quickly as possible and to keep oxygen levels up in the water. This means:
Circulating cold water over the prawns during transportation to increase available oxygen
Making up large batches of ice from seawater that we use to further cool totes during processing and transport
Carefully monitoring each tote for signs of prawn health or mortality
If the prawns are still alive, make sure to keep them in a large, cold container with ice (in bags). Do not rinse or store them directly in fresh water as they will die quickly.
A few things to consider when buying fresh:
Look - Spot prawn protein is nearly translucent when raw. Expect brown, red and salmon colouration with bright white spots and striations on the tail and head. If you do find prawns where the base of the head is starting to turning black, remove the head as quickly as possible. This will help the tail from going mushy.
Smell - Fresh prawns should smell like the ocean, in a good way, with little in the way of fishiness. Some people describe the smell as sweet and ‘briny’.
Feel - The texture should be firm, especially in the region between the head and the body if you’re buying head-on.
Spot prawns are equally good when handled, processed and thawed properly from frozen. In fact, exceptionally high-grade prawns are frozen and shipped across the globe for use in high-end sushi restaurants, where they are regarded for their texture, flavour and beautiful colour. Having a stash of frozen prawns in your freezer is very convenient for special occasions when you have little time for preparation; spot prawns can be prepared in less than 10 minutes from frozen!
Head-on or Head-Off?
Buying prawns head-on or head-off is really a matter of personal choice; there’s no right or wrong way, it depends on what you like and in some cases, the dish you’re making and what is available.
Prawn-heads are delicious and you can make excellent soups and stocks out of them so long as they are fresh or freshly frozen. In many cultures it's considered a delicacy to slurp the cooked contents right out of the prawn head - and I daresay it is a wonderful way to enjoy the whole animal.
Head-on prawns are beautiful and contribute meaningfully to the artistry of some dishes. Inviting your family and friends to peel their own prawns slows down a meal and adds an element of ceremony to the event. Just make sure you provide plenty of napkins and empty bowls for heads and shells!
Japanese sushi chefs usually request spot prawns head-on. It is often served as nigiri, with the body peeled, but presented with the head. This is because a head with no signs of darkening is seen as a sign of freshness. When the head of a prawn is exposed to air after death it will darken due to oxidization. Preserving freshness so heads do not darken starts with handling fresh/live product and freezing them very quickly. Japanese technicians request the use of the antioxidant sodium metabisulphite to ensure that when they are thawed the heads do not darken for several hours. This gives the chef enough time to complete dinner service. Sodium metabisulphite is an allergen for those with sulphite allergies, so check food labels if this is a concern to you.
Buying head-off prawns can be really handy for dishes that highlight a larger quantity of the peeled protein, like in a ceviche or taco. In our experience, headless prawns are also a bit more forgiving when it comes processing as potential enzymes in the head are removed earlier and are less likely to make the meat in the tail mushy.
Cooking spot Prawns
Handling Prawns with Heads-On
When preparing prawns with the head-on, you should be especially mindful of keeping them cold or frozen until the last possible moment. As temperatures rise, natural enzymes in the head will become more active and may degrade the protein in the tail, resulting in the sometimes observed ‘mushy’ texture. This, however, can be easily avoided by removing the heads either before the prawns die or as soon as possible after the prawns are thawed. If spot prawns are thawed for an extended period of time with the heads on (more than 12 hours in the fridge) then these enzymes, if present, can travel down from the head into the meat and cause the meat to go mushy once it’s cooked. The heads may also blacken through oxidation if they are thawed for too long.
It is a false myth that an overcooked spot prawn gets mushy. Like most proteins, it will get tough, dry, and less flavourful if it’s overcooked but mushy texture only occurs when the meat gets saturated with enzymes sometimes present in spot prawn heads. Applied heat will accelerate this effect, so if the meat does contain these enzymes then cooking it, particularly overcooking it, will result in a mealy, unpleasant texture.
Ideas to get you Started
Some preparation ideas on the simpler side that celebrate the subtleness of our prawns:
Raw - This succulent, sweet protein is absolutely incredible raw. This may be the simplest, best way to appreciate the subtle sweetness of the protein. Raw, the texture is succulent and buttery, it almost melts in your mouth. You can remove the heads and shells and serve in small bowls, or let family and friends participate in removing the shells themselves. Be careful of the small spines! With a nice glass of BC Pinot Grigio, you can’t go wrong.
Poached - This is actually one of our favourite ways to do them. Blanch the prawns first and remove the heads. Then boil them for 30 seconds to 1 1/2 minutes. In our experience, the key to avoiding mushy prawns where the texture is a bit stringy, is to remove the heads as soon as you can after blanching.
Ceviche - Scatter prawns on a plate and squeeze some lemon or lime on top. Top with thinly sliced onion or chillies and fresh herbs if you're feeling fancy.
Simple Stir-Fry - Toss prawns with some garlic or ginger and cook in a single layer in a very hot pan with plenty of oil. Just about any veggie can be added so long as you don't crowd your pan (or wok).
On the BBQ - Spot prawns are amazing on the BBQ. They really don’t need anything! They’ll pick-up a lovely amount of smoke after just a minute or two in a basket or directly on the grill. If you like things tasting rich, serve with small dipping bowls of melted butter and garlic and a big chardonnay.
A few more elaborate options that highlight this protein’s incredible versatility. Though garlic and butter is an old standard you can’t go wrong with, also try prawns with Thai, Indian and Mexican seasonings. This is an exceptionally versatile food!
An experience… if you’re lucky enough
Sushi - This is still the most popular way to prepare spot prawns world-wide. Straight or Nigiri-style on a bit of sushi rice are wonderful ways to appreciate the spot prawn's sweet flavor and firm texture.
Over Fire - If you’re out camping or close to a beach with big rocks, build a fire and cook prawns directly on the rocks once they’ve heated in the fire. If you build a ring with larger rocks and nestle your wood on the inside, the edge of the stones will be plenty hot enough!
How are they caught?
Spot prawns are trap caught. One license allows the fisher to use 300 traps. You can optionally add a second license for an additional 200 traps for a maximum of 500 traps.
Fishing often starts historically on the second Thursday of May. Last year, due to Covid-19 we moved it to the first Thursday of June. This allowed most of the prawns to complete another molt prior to fishing and we saw the average size increase per animal by 15%. The 2021 season started in May 15th.
60% of the total volume caught in BC is by live prawn fishermen. 40% is caught by Frozen at Sea (FAS) fishermen.
As their traps are emptied and baited, they dump the contents of the trap onto a sorting table. Egg-bearing females are thrown back as are any off species.