Learn about the following species groups (including their most common members, as well as purchasing, storage and cooking information), or select a specific species from the species list on the right.
Found from Greenland to the tip of South America, Prawns are one of the most versatile and widely available seafoods worldwide. There are hundreds of different species, living mostly in salt, or brackish, waters, with a few freshwater varieties found in rivers and lakes. They range from the tiny specimens used for making prawn paste to giants as large as small lobsters. When raw (referred to as ‘green’), they vary in colour from translucent through grey-green to bright red, though, as with all crustaceans, they take on shades of reddish brown to bright orange when cooked.
There is some confusion between the words ‘prawn’ and shrimp’. In the United States ‘shrimp’ is the common term, even for large specimens often referred to as ‘jumbo shrimp’. In Britain, ‘shrimp’ is used for smaller specimens and ‘prawn’ refers to the larger ones. Here in Australia, ‘prawn’ is used for all sizes.
Some common Prawns are:
Tiger Prawns (Marsupenaeus japonicus, Penaeus esculentus and P. semisulcatus), the most common aquaculture Prawns in Australia, are pale brown to bluey green with distinct grey, blue or black stripes.
King Prawns (Melicertus latisulcatus and Melicertus plebejus) have a cream to light brown body and are generally larger than Tiger Prawns. Legs and tailfin are a distinctive bright blue in the Western variety (M.latisulcatus) and cream in the Eastern (M. plebejus), which is generally larger.
Redspot (King) Prawns (Melicertus longistylus), are closely related to King Prawns, though often smaller, and have a distinctive red spot on each side of their body shell.
Banana Prawns (Fenneropenaeus indicus and Fenneropenaeus merguiensis), caught by trawlers off northern Australia, are translucent to yellow in colour with tiny dark spots.
School Prawns (Metapenaeus macleayi and Metapenaeus dalli), are mostly trawled or netted in estuaries south of Noosa, with a small recreational fishery for Western School Prawns (M.dalli) in WA.
Bay Prawns (Metapenaeus bennettae and Metapenaeus insolitus) have a translucent brown to green body with dark brown speckling and green tips on the tail fan and, as Metapenaeus species, can be sold as School Prawns.
Endeavour Prawns (Metapenaeus endeavouri and Metapenaeus ensis), have a pale brown to pink body with either a bright blue (M.endeavouri) or bright red (M.ensis) edge to their tail fin. Caught off the northern coast of Australia, they too are Metapenaeus species and can be sold as School Prawns.
Royal Red Prawns (Haliporoides sibogae), trawled mostly off the south coast of NSW, are pink to red even when raw, with a thin shell. Usually sold frozen, as they spoil quickly, they’re an inexpensive alternative if Prawn meat is to be chopped or minced.
Vannamei Prawns (Litopenaeus vannamei), are a small, cheap aquaculture Prawn imported frozen from South East Asia.
Prawns are highly perishable in their raw state and so are often frozen or boiled at sea as soon as they are caught. If cooking with Prawns, buy green (raw) Prawns, as cooked Prawns will toughen if reheated. Whether buying cooked or raw Prawns look for firmly attached heads and tight, firm shells with a good sheen. There shouldn’t be any blackening around the head or legs as this is a sign of oxidation, and they should have a pleasant ‘fresh sea’ smell. Buy 1kg of Prawns in the shell to get about 500g of Prawn meat.
Leave Prawns in their shells until just before using them and store them in an airtight container in the refrigerator. It is always best to buy seafood as close as possible to use, fresh Prawns however, cooked or raw, should keep refrigerated for up to 3 days and frozen for up to 3 months below -18ºC. Once thawed, frozen Prawns should not be refrozen.
The body of the Prawn is the most commonly eaten part, minus the head, shell, legs and tail fins, although very small Prawns are sometimes fried and eaten whole. The body of the Prawn is sometimes referred to as the ‘tail’. The digestive tract runs along the back of the body and is best removed in all but the smallest of Prawns.
After removing the head from fresh green Prawns, hold the Prawn straight and gently pull the end of the digestive tract (from the head end), it will usually come out in one go. If it breaks off, use a thin skewer to hook it out from the back of the Prawn, or make a small incision along the back of the Prawn and remove it. In cooked Prawns, the back has to be cut open to remove the digestive tract. ‘Butterflied’ Prawns are peeled, with tail intact, split down the back and flattened out; these are also often referred to as ‘Prawn cutlets’.
Like all seafood, Prawns require very little cooking. It is always better to undercook, rather than overcook, them, as they will continue to cook in the residual heat once they are removed from the pan. While perfectly cooked Prawns are springy, sweet and succulent, overcooked Prawns are dry, rubbery and tasteless.
Cooked Prawns are good in salads and sandwiches, or eaten cold with a dipping sauce, but don’t use them in a cooked dish, as reheating them will make them tough.Prawns turn up in almost every cuisine: served cold with a squeeze of lemon or on the Aussie barbie, dressed up with crisp lettuce leaves and a tomato-spiked mayonnaise in the classic Prawn cocktail, in French bisques, South East Asian curries, Japanese tempura and sushi, English potted shrimp, Spanish garlic Prawns, Vietnamese sugarcane Prawns and Chinese drunken Prawns.
They marry well with a wide range of flavours and are suitable for most cooking styles. Tomalley, the coral or mustard from Prawn heads, gives a concentrated Prawn flavour when cooked; it adds richness to Thai curries and is responsible for the distinctive flavour of Prawn bisques and shellfish reduction sauces.
Because Prawns are so perishable, many ways have been developed to preserve them:
Prawn crackers (krupuk udang in Indonesia and Malaysia and banh phong tom in Vietnam) are usually made from tapioca or rice starch flavoured with salt, sugar and varying amounts of Prawn or other seafood. They are sun (or commercially) dried, and rehydrated by deep-frying to be served as a snack or side dish. If stored in a dry place, they keep almost indefinitely.
Shrimp paste (blachan in Malaysia, terasi in Indonesia, gapi in Thailand, bagoong in the Philippines and balichao in Macao) is an essential seasoning in many South East Asian dishes. It is made from tiny Prawns, which are salted, sun-dried, pounded into a paste and fermented in the humid South East Asian heat. It varies in flavour and intensity from country to country (or even region to region within some countries). It is always cooked to mellow its very pungent aroma and flavour, sometimes it is mixed into a curry paste before frying and other times grilled or fried before being blended into a sauce or paste. It keeps almost indefinitely without refrigeration. The English make a shrimp paste, but it is not fermented and is used as a spread rather than as a seasoning. It consists of cooked and pounded Prawn meat (from small Prawns or ‘shrimp’), mixed with some butter and seasoning (typically mace, cayenne and anchovy sauce).
Indian balachong (also balichow or balachow) is a southern Indian pickle sometimes made from fresh salted Prawns, but also from mangoes or dried duck eggs. It is hot and strongly flavoured and is eaten as a relish with curries.
Dried Prawns/shrimp are very small Prawns, shelled, boiled in brine and dried. They are used as a garnish and to add flavour to spring rolls, rice and vegetable dishes.