Once upon a time, my daughters cringed at touching raw meat and seafood. They especially balked at seeing the intestines of fish. When they cooked, I prepped the meat or seafood for them. And I told them so many times, “If you can’t choose your meat or seafood, and if you don’t know how to clean, cut and prep them, then you don’t know how to cook.” And I’d say that to anyone who thinks he can cook because he can sprinkle seasonings and stir the contents of the pot. Seriously… If you can’t tell pork belly from pork loin, or fish steak from fish fillet, you’re just a wannabe cook.
Sam turned vegetarian so she has no reason to handle meat. But Alex is, like her father and me, omnivorous. Over the past few weeks, she has learned to cut chicken through the bone, prepare pork ribs and slice meat across the grain. Today, I taught her how to clean, peel and devein shrimps and prawn.
But, first, what’s the difference between shrimp and prawn? The easy answer is size — prawn is larger than shrimp. But the complete answer is more complicated than that. There are small shrimps and large shrimps — at what size can they be considered prawns? Strictly speaking, shrimp and prawn are different animals. They both belong to the phylum Arthropoda and sub-phylum Crustacea. Prawn belongs to the sub-order Dendrobranchiata while shrimp falls under the sub-order Pleocyemata. It’s just everyday usage that employs that simplistic explanation that prawns are just large shrimps.
How do we tell shrimps from prawns? Some of the differences may not be too obvious by just looking at the animal. But some features are distinguishable upon closer inspection. Here’s a screengrab of a table from Academia.
Too nerdy for the average cook? Yes, I think it is. Prawns and shrimps can be cooked as though they were the same animal. And the preparation method is the same for both.
As a final note before delving into the step-by-step instruction for cleaning, peeling and deveining shrimp and prawn, let me say that, unlike in most of the First World, in Southeast Asia, fresh shrimps and prawns are sold whole with the heads and tails intact. There are dishes which do not require the animal to be peeled and deveined at all. Think sinigang na sugpo. If it’s meat bone that flavors bone broth, it’s the shrimp heads and shells that flavor shrimp broth. Ergo, the shrimps are thrown whole into the pot.
When cooking dishes that require the shrimps or prawns to be peeled, the heads and shells are rarely thrown away. They are boiled and pressed to make shrimp broth. Think of the broth of La Paz Batchoy which won’t taste as rich without shrimp heads and shells.
So, how are shrimps prepped for dishes that do not require the heads and shells?
First, rinse the shrimps and drain well.
Grab the shrimp with one hand and pull the head with the other hand.
Turn the shrimp with the legs facing you. Place your thumbs where the legs are then press and push outward to loosen the shell. Once the shell is loose, you can easily peel it off.
The shell might not come off in one piece. If it does not, peel by section.
Hold the shrimp with the back facing upward. Take a knife and slide the blade along the length of the shrimp about an eighth of an inch deep.
This will expose a black thread running through the length of the shrimp. The black thread is the animal’s digestive system.
Just lift the thread, pull it out and discard.
Now, you’re ready to cook these dishes: