Prawns – or as the Americans prefer, shrimps – are the undisputed crustacean of choice in the kitchen. They span across cultures, cementing their place on your plate with everything from ceviche, golden fried prawns to a simple prawn curry. This easy-to-eat crustacean is prized for its mellow taste and agreeable texture, which even the most ardent seafood slouches cannot resist.
They are also quite the guiltless pleasure, with their entire body weight mostly made up of protein and water. Statistically, 83% water. This little detail is extremely important. If you have ever rued biting into coiled up, rubbery prawns before, you know what I am talking about.
These guys cook fast – I mean really fast. Five minutes on a pan and you can see your palm-sized tiger prawns rapidly shrink into finger-food. What is happening is the loss of moisture. The key to juicy, succulent prawns with bouncy meat is – you guessed it right – water!
Here are three tricks that will change the way you cook and eat prawns forever.
1. Brining – Even a short dip in a brine (salt) solution can lead to a dramatic improvement on the plate. The salt solution penetrates the tissues, increasing water content while seasoning the meat.
2. Use the shells – Most of the flavour is locked away in the exoskeleton or the shell of this crustacean, which is why many chefs prefer to serve you prawns with the shell on. However, you can get the convenience of shelled shrimps along with all that flavour by cooking the shells separately. Boil them with water, garlic and aromatics to make a stock that can go into your soups and curries. Sauté them with butter to drizzle on your grills.
3. Know when they are done – As a rule of thumb, your prawns are done the moment their flesh turns translucent, and when they curl up into the shape of the alphabet ‘C’. They are overcooked when they start curling up into an ‘O’.
With prawns 101 done, as promised, we reveal the top three prawn dishes in Chennai.
Shrimp nigiri at Dahlia, Nungambakkam
Dahlia, the grand old daddy of Japanese restaurants in Chennai, was started by a seafood importer when he settled in the city after marrying a Japanese interpreter. Obviously, the quality is first-rate. This is the purest way to enjoy your shrimps.
Tandoori jhinga at Peshawri, ITC Grand Chola, Guindy
One of the largest specimens of the species on any Chennai menu, these jumbo prawns are huge. ITC’s signature Frontier restaurant does full justice to the Bay’s freshest catch with a subtle rub of spices; some expert grilling makes this a dish to remember. Does not come cheap though.
Prawns pollichathu at Colony, The Raintree Hotel, Alwarpet
Pollichathu is the signature Kerala style of steaming inside a banana leaf. It is best known for the beloved-by-Malayalis Karimeen preparation. However, Colony at The Raintree in Alwarpet does an exceptional version with prawns. The large, butterflied prawns are slathered in a luscious masala and steamed. Highly recommended.
A self proclaimed food geek and coffee nerd, Amit Patnaik enjoys his time in the kitchen as much as he loves dining out. He runs the food blog Pursuit of Yummyness and contributes to The Hindu in Chennai.