They are huge, these Santa Barbara spot prawns. And they are coddled all the way to the table.
They are caught in traps at depths up to 1,600 feet, carefully brought aboard small shrimp boats and kept alive for the trip to shore, which can be as much as 100 miles away. They are shipped from the docks in trucks with large tanks of aerated seawater kept at an icy 38 degrees to replicate the ocean depths as closely as possible. Then they are cooked at high-end restaurants or eaten as sushi called amaebi. Such is the popularity of this trendy delicacy that summer menus throughout Southern California are featuring this prawn.
Spot prawns are caught from February to November, but the majority of the harvest comes right about now. Even in the best of times, though, the catch is erratic--weather in the fishing grounds can be treacherous. Sometimes entire weeks can go by with seas too rough for the small boats.
What is it about spot prawns that make them worth the trouble? It’s not just the size, though with a “shrimp” as long as 10 inches, that is certainly distinctive. The real selling point of spot prawns is their firm texture and sweet, almost nutty flavor. In many ways, these are closer to lobster than to the soft, pallid farm-raised shrimp we’re so used to today.
“It’s a great shrimp, and you can do anything with it,” says Michael Cimarusti, head chef at the Water Grill, one of Los Angeles’ top seafood restaurants. “They’re incredibly sweet.”
Echoes Charles Fredericks, the head chef at Bouchon in Santa Barbara: “In my opinion, it’s one of the superior crustacean products available anywhere in the world. Chefs always look for ingredients, and this is one ingredient that makes a chef look good.”
Although most shrimp today are raised in vast farms as far away as Southeast Asia and South America, then shipped to this country in great frozen blocks, spot prawns are incredibly perishable and should be purchased, as Fredericks puts it, “alive and kicking.” Within hours of dying, they become mushy, tasteless and virtually worthless unless they’ve been handled just right.
“They’re a lot like lobsters, so they’re not going to last three or four days,” says Blake Wheeler, a wholesale buyer for American Fish and Seafood Co. “You want to move them quick.”
Alaska to San Diego
The major California fishery for the spot prawn is off Monterey and around Southern California’s Channel Islands (despite its Santa Barbara nickname, the prawn is found from the Bering Sea to San Diego).
There is no clear definition of what is a prawn and what is a shrimp. In general, big shrimps are called prawns. Spot prawns, which are so-called because they have four distinctive white spots on their abdomens, come from the genus Pandalus, which tend to be wildly colored--a close cousin is the coonstripe shrimp from the northern Pacific.
Though some are caught in trawl nets, most experts agree that the best spot prawns are those caught in traps, usually oblong contraptions with conical entrances at either end. The traps, baited with everything from cat food to fish carcasses, are hooked to a long nylon line and lowered to depths ranging from 400 to 1,600 feet.
Shrimpers mark their lines with distinctive buoys and haul them up every several days. The catch is then dumped into tanks of chilled salt water for the long trip back to port. One fisherman, Ventura-based Jeff Hepp, says he sometimes fishes more than 100 miles offshore for the spot prawn.
But that is only the beginning of the process that eventually puts the prawn on a dinner plate. Next in the chain is the likes of Steve Moore of Oxnard, who trucks the prawns to wholesalers and selected restaurants around Los Angeles. Moore says he prefers the trapped variety because they are in better shape and tend to be larger, usually about six to the pound.
“The ones in the traps are of better quality because they don’t get so beat up,” says Moore, who also owns two restaurants called the Fresh Catch, in Oxnard and Newbury Park.
The spot prawn looks more like a lobster than a garden-variety shrimp. Spot prawns start off as males, but become females after three years. They mate once as a male and at least once as a female. Their average lifespan in waters off California is six years. At the end of the spawning season in January, there is a noticeable drop-off in females because that is when they usually die.
A Comfy 38 Degrees
Once caught, Moore says the spot prawns are weighed at the dock before he loads them into one of three 200-gallon tanks installed in his truck. The saltwater is cooled to 38 degrees in an effort to replicate spot prawn habitat and keep the catch alive longer. The water itself is aerated using a soaker hose.
If they aren’t bound for a tank, they have to be beheaded quickly before an enzyme begins to seep into the rest of the body, turning the flesh mushy and discoloring it.
Because of their erratic availability and because they require such careful handling, spot prawns are only rarely found at retail, even at seafood specialty stores. But they can be found from time to time at some seafood markets such as Fish King in Glendale, or ordered live through high-end food stores such as Bristol Farms. They can also be found at seafood vendors at some Southern California farmers markets.
Spot prawns can be fixed in a variety of ways. Mostly commonly, they are simply split down the length and sauteed or grilled to take the greatest advantage of their impressive size. The tail is the best part. The head (which makes up as much as one-third of the length) does contain a lot of flavorful fat, though it is hard to get to. Sometimes you’ll get spots that still have their roe. Though this is colorful, it doesn’t have much flavor.
Cimarusti takes advantage of their appearance by serving split, grilled prawns with a light stew of favas and ginger. Another time he served them with a delicate salad of steamed fingerling potatoes bound with a lobster nage.
Because they are available only occasionally, Fredericks says he never puts spot prawns on his menu, but makes them a house specialty when shrimpers call and say they’re coming in with a load of spots. One recent dish featured wontons with a filling of chopped spot prawns. Though this may seem like a waste of a beautiful body, using them this way gets the most flavor from the smallest amount of an expensive ingredient. In sushi, amaebi, or sweet prawns, are shelled and the tails are eaten raw. Sometimes the heads are served separately, either deep fried in tempura batter or in a miso broth.
Trapping for spot prawns can have its down side. Moore says that on occasion, territorial conflicts arise between the trappers and the trawlers, or draggers.
“The draggers will get in there and destroy a string or two,” he says. “It usually happens when the dragger isn’t a local.”
Or consider the case of John Gooth, an Oceanside shrimper who had to set out early last week to pull in his traps and move them. The reason was somewhat unusual: as part of naval exercises out of San Diego, minesweepers were operating in the area.
“If I didn’t get them out, the minesweeper would have cut my lines,” he says.
Russ Parsons contributed to this report.