By Franz Scheurer
My friend Don knows his food and wine. He’s a talented researcher and compulsive hoarder of culinary facts, so when he e-mailed me a couple of days ago to tell me that he found a ‘new prawn’ he deserved my unreserved attention. He told me that his local fishmonger had these giant, dark red prawns, called ‘Scarlet Prawns’ that were unlike any other prawn he’s ever eaten, lobster-like, sweet and off the boat unfrozen.
Consulting the Australian Seafood Hand Book and Australian Seafood Users Manual, and a little ‘hands-on’ research, let me tell you about Scarlet Prawns.
The Scarlet Prawn, previously also called coral prawn, giant red prawn, red prawn and velvet prawn is part of the infraorder Caridea and the suprfamily Penaeoidea.
The prawn’s rostrum is well developed, the abdomen longer than the carapace and compressed. Telson pointed, antennae very long, thin and roughly cylindrical in cross-section. Several characteristics distinguish members of the superfamily Penaeoidea (tropical prawns) from members of the infraorder Caridea (freshwater prawns). In Penaeoid prawns, the third pair of legs has claws and the first abdominal segment overlaps the second. In Carid prawns, which are usually smaller, the third pair of legs is not clawed and the second abdominal segment overlaps the first. Distinguished from scampi in having a pointed, rather than broadly convex telson. They occupy a vast range of habitats, including freshwater ponds, rivers, estuaries, coastal inshore areas and deep ocean waters, to depth exceeding 700m. Bottom types are usually soft sand or mud.
The largest species marketed in Australia is the ‘Scarlet Prawn’ Aristaeopsis Edwardsiana, which reaches 35cm in body length and 180g. ‘Scarlet Prawns’ are mainly found in deep ocean waters and caught as a by-catch on day boats. This is the reason they come onto the market floor without having been frozen, as is the practice with prawns caught on prawn trawlers who go out for several days at a time. Their deep red colour makes them look cooked and the oversized head gives them a vaguely Frankensteinish appearance. The flesh is translucent, finely textured with a firm bite. They taste very much like lobster but have a far superior texture. I could not establish if they were seasonal or simply reasonably rare, but they are available every now and then. Enlisting the help of Roberta Muir from the Sydney Seafood School it only took two days to find some at the Sydney Fish Market and the effort was well worth it.
When Don said that they were the best prawns he’s ever tasted, he was right.
Have a word to your friendly fishmonger, hang around the Sydney Fish Market, make friends with a professional fisherman, bribe someone, steal some, whatever it takes, taste them, it will blow your mind. (oh, and ‘pssst!’… don’t tell anyone!)