Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Shrimp or Prawns?

I had a pleasant weekend very recently with another food history nerd – Brooklyn inhabitant and food writer Kathryn McGowan. Kathryn was visiting Oz, and had the opportunity to come up to Brisbane for a couple of days. We decided to stop talking and poring over cookbooks (difficult, folks, very difficult) and actually do some cooking. For reasons explained by Kathryn in a post yesterday at her blog Comestibles, we decided on a recipe from the year of 1788.

A visit to the farmer’s market near my home was already in the plans, so we settled on our recipe and away we went. We had decided on a dish of prawns, for a number of very important reasons – I had been extolling the virtues of our local seafood, we could buy them from the fisherman himself at the market, I had all the other ingredients at hand, and it was a quick recipe and we had other things to fit in. Also because we both like prawns - in my case even if they are called ‘shrimp.’ Oh! The fun that ensues from the common language of our two countries!

I have no idea why ‘over there’ these delectable sea-beasties are called shrimp, and over here they are ‘prawns’. Both words have been used in England since medieval times. I understand the difference nowadays as referring to size – shrimp being smaller than prawns. Apparently the scarcity of the word ‘prawn’ does not limit those of you across the big water however, Kathryn tells me that you simply call the big ones ‘Jumbo Shrimp’. I did not pursue the question of why ‘shrimp’ also appears to apply to the plural, but one prawn becomes two prawns. I am going to take language lessons before I come to visit your land.

Anyway, I trotted over to the Oxford English Dictionary, to see what it had to say on the topic. No doubt, I thought, there will be a zoological distinction. For both words the etymology is apparently obscure, but the individual entries read as follows:

Shrimp: Any of the slender, long-tailed, long-legged (chiefly marine) crustaceans of the genus Crangon and allied genera, closely related to the prawns; esp. C. vulgaris, the common shrimp, which inhabits the sand on the coasts of Great Britain and is a common article of food.  Also, in a wider sense, applied to various similar crustaceans, as the families Mysidæ and Gammaridæ; see brine, fairy, opossum shrimp, etc.

Prawn: Any of various edible marine decapod crustaceans resembling shrimps but usually somewhat larger and with a prominent rostrum on the carapace. Also more widely: a large shrimp. The traditional edible prawns of the North Atlantic belong to the genus Leander (infraorder Caridea), while those of Indo-Pacific origin belong to the genus Penaeus (suborder Dendrobranchiata).

So, there you have it. Crystal clear now, isn’t it? The ones with the prominent rostrum on the carapace are prawns.

Our recipe was chosen from om The English Art of Cookery, by Richard Briggs, published, as I said, in 1788. I give you the original recipe below, and Kathryn has given our interpretation and a photo of the finished dish in her post of yesterday (linked above). The dish was delicious.

To stew Crawfish, Prawns, or Shrimps.
Take half a hundred crawfish, or one hundred prawns, or two quarts of shrimps, boil them in salt and water, pick out the tails and bruise the bodies, put the bodies on the fire with half a pint of water, a pint of white wine, a blade of mace, and a bit of horse-radish, and stew them a quarter of an hour; then strain the liquor off, wash out the stew-pan, and put the tails and liquor in, with a piece of butter mixed with flour, and a little grated nutmeg, stir them, and stew them till they are thick and smooth; cut a thin toast round a quatern loaf, toast it brown on both sides, cut it into six pieces, lay them close in a dish, and put the ingredients over; if it is crawfish, break some of the claws, take out the meat, and put them round the dish for garnish, and put the rest with the tails.

Quotation for the Day.

I'm horrified of lobsters. And shrimp and lobsters are the cockroaches of the ocean.
Brooke Burke.


Unknown said...

"Shrimp or Prawns" - looks like the (European?) confusion about "Scampi or Gamba"

The Old Foodie said...

Hello PaulO - I came across that confusion recently (we dont do 'scampi' in Oz) and have already earmarked that topic for another post - it seems to be a 1950's phenomenon (the dish named scampi, that is. It is fascinating, isnt it, this word stuff?

KT said...

Mmm, I love shrimp/prawns and lobster... but my husband would agree that they are the cockroaches of the sea.