A decade ago, British Columbia spot prawns were a bottom-of-the-barrel seafood product – the mushy filler for chowder and fortifier of cheap fish stock. Last weekend, the luxury crustaceans were toasted with Moët & Chandon champagne.
To celebrate its 10th anniversary, the B.C. Spot Prawn Festival kicked off Friday night with a black-tie gala at the tony, private Vancouver Club. The splashy fete featured the delicacy in six courses – melted into "liquid gold," smoked over rosemary, poached with grand-fir tips and chopped into XO sauce – prepared by famous chefs from Vancouver and across the country.
Gala guests wore ball gowns and tuxedos and the soaring calla lily floral arrangements were lavish. The scene was about as far removed from a dockside spot-prawn boil as one could imagine. So how did the humble B.C. spot prawn go from being an unappreciated toss-away ingredient to one of Canada's signature seafood luxury products coveted in restaurants around the world? Here's what you need to know.
Basically, it's a prawn with spots
The wild B.C. spot prawn is the largest of all seven commercial species of shrimp found in the Pacific Northwest. Some grow bigger than a human hand – up to about 23 centimetres in length. They are reddish-brown, turning bright pink when cooked, with defining white spots on their tails. When properly handled and cooked, they are firm in texture, with a luscious, sweet flavour.
Maligned and misunderstood
The commercial B.C. spot-prawn fishery – which harvests approximately 2,540 metric tonnes annually, between Vancouver Island and the mainland – has a long history. But prior to 2006, almost the entire catch was exported to Hong Kong and Tokyo. Sport fishermen, who are allowed to trap unlimited amounts all year long, knew there were premium prawns in them thar waters, but it was a well-guarded secret. Vancouver chefs were skeptical, which isn't surprising, since only the dregs were sold locally.
At the turn of the millennium, Robert Clark was the executive chef at Vancouver's C Restaurant, one of Canada's premier seafood restaurants. Long before programs such as Ocean Wise or SeaChoice existed, Clark had already begun championing sustainable seafood. He knew that farmed tiger prawns were bad for the environment and often tasteless to boot, so he took them off his menu. "It was the hardest decision we ever made, but it had to be done," he recalls of nixing the most popular seafood from his sales. Two years later, he was out on a boat with his friend Steve Johansen, the owner of Organic Ocean Seafood, complaining about how he couldn't source any premium spot prawns. "If you're serious about this, I'll buy a spot-prawn licence," Johansen said. In 2006, Organic Ocean became the first commercial fishing operation to serve the domestic market exclusively.
The festival that almost sank the dock
Clark went to the Chefs' Table Society of B.C. and asked for $2,000 to stage a little festival on Vancouver's Fishermen's Wharf. "We thought we'd boil some prawns and educate a few people," Clark recalls, chuckling. "Hundreds of people turned out. We almost sunk the dock." This year, 2,000 tickets were sold for the Sunday-afternoon spot-prawn boil, hosted by the Chefs' Table Society of B.C., with nearly twice as many people wandering through the festival to buy prawns from the day boats.
Canada versus USA
Any live spot prawns for sale before last Thursday's season-opening festival were American, from Puget Sound in Washington State. U.S. spot prawns are not as sustainable as those from British Columbia, where a later fishery opening means prawns have grown to full size. In Canada, fishermen have to throw back "berried" prawns (females with eggs attached), which helps maintain healthier stocks. The prawns are caught with long-line bait traps that have minimal impact on ocean habitat and low levels of bycatch. Traps are closely monitored during the four-to-six-week harvest season: Once the number of spawning prawns caught in each trap drops below a certain level, the fishery is closed.
Try this at home
When buying live spot prawns, look for firm prawns with a strong tail. If the tail is curled inwards, they are weak and close to death. Spot prawns have an enzyme in their brain that starts spreading as soon as they die. The enzyme breaks down the proteins in the tail and turns the flesh soft and grainy. If buying tails with the head removed, look for translucent flesh. Avoid prawns that are turning white, have black spots or smell like ammonia. Tap water will kill live prawns: Remove the head as soon as you get home. Put the tails on ice, cover them with a cloth and keep them in the fridge for up to two days.
Choose your prawns with care
Obviously, fresh prawns are better, but frozen spot prawns can be pretty tasty. Look for those that are frozen in blocks or tubs of seawater. The briny solution seasons the flesh and keeps them in good shape for up to two years. Be wary of frozen spot prawns served in Japanese restaurants. The Japanese market prizes prawns with the head still attached. But in order to kill them without spreading the enzyme, the intact prawns are dipped in ascorbic acid or sodium metabisulfite, a chemical compound that can be quite hazardous. The prawns may taste incredibly delicious – almost buttery – but they can be toxic.
Cooking – be quick
A little heat will firm up the flesh and release the sweetness, but too much will toughen the meat. Blanched or seared, prawns need no more than 30 seconds to cook, one minute max. They're also delicious when grilled in their shells. The heads are edible. Fry them in oil and eat them like chips.
In 2006, spot prawns were priced at $12 a pound off the docks in Vancouver. This year, they cost $17 a pound here, and upwards of $30 elsewhere in Canada. While that isn't a huge increase over a decade, prices shot up by 50 per cent two years ago when Early Mortality Syndrome decimated Asia's farm-raised tiger-prawn industry. Hungry offshore buyers determine the price: Although licence owners would rather keep prices down for the domestic market, if they don't charge what the market dictates, the fishermen they work with will simply sell to others supplying the exporters.
Will spot prawns stay in Canada?
Although consumers – and chefs – have balked at the increased price of spot prawns, demand shows no signs of slowing down. The lineups to buy from the boats at Sunday's festival were hundreds of people long. Some people are now choosing local sidestripe and humpback shrimp as a less expensive alternative. But if it weren't for spot prawns, which proved that there were delicious shrimp swimming in local waters, even those lesser varieties might still be considered garbage.
Editor's note: A previous version of this story incorrectly said the Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts hosted a spot-prawn boil on Vancouver's Fishermen's Wharf. In fact, the event is hosted by the Chefs' Table Society of B.C.