The Succulent Prawns To Try If You're A Fan Of Buttered Lobster

Lobster is a modern delicacy, but it hasn't always been so. It wasn't until after the Civil War that lobster became a food eaten by the poor and rich alike. Eventually, the tides turned so that the crustacean became synonymous, though not exclusive, with dinner plates of the upper classes, per Samuels Seafood.

Not only are lobsters expensive — and oftentimes inaccessible in their fresh-caught state for those in landlocked states — but they can be very difficult to cook. While all you need to do is chuck them in a pot of boiling water, the task isn't pleasant for those unfamiliar, and it can be intimidating. A whole lobster provides a lot of food, too, so if you're just making dinner for one or two, the crustacean can be a bit overkill. In comes the spot prawn, a member of the shrimp family (via Wild Alaskan Company). Don't let the fact that it's a shrimp dissuade you from the sea creature — it has a remarkably similar taste to lobster, which is why seafood aficionados have dubbed it the lobster of Alaska. Keep reading to learn all there is to know about this wonderful and versatile lobster alternative.

What are spot prawns?

Spot prawns are also referred to by their scientific name, pandalus platyceros, as well as spot shrimp. They're a member of the pandalus genus, which Mindat describes as a genus of cold-water prawns in the shrimp family.

The saltwater crustacean is that native to the Pacific Ocean, and can be found off the coasts of California, Alaska, the Sea of Japan, and the Korean Strait, according to Aquarium of the Pacific. They tend to average in size around 10.5 inches, and female prawns tend to be bigger. Spot prawns are easy to identify by their red, coral-toned shell, and (as their common name would suggest) the white spots found on either side of their body. They have a total of 10 pairs of legs with claws in the front, distinctive antennae, and other appendages on their heads. They can also be identified by the row of small spikes running down the center of their spine and forehead. 

Once spot prawn eggs are hatched, they all mature into male prawns, per Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. After two to three years, they'll change into female prawns, lay an average of two cycles of eggs, and die around four to five years old.

How are spot prawns caught?

Unlike other fish, crustaceans like shrimp — and subsequently spot prawns — are most efficiently caught in traps. The first spot prawns were actually caught by accident, being found in octopus traps, per California Sea Grant. The first fishery dedicated to catching spot prawns was founded in the 1930s.

During the day, spot prawns can be found at depths starting at 400 meters, or just over 1,300 feet. At night, they come up to shallow water, where they look for other shrimp, mollusks, worms, algae, and other sources of food. While they're more accessible at night time, it's easier to catch large amounts during the day using traps and trawling nets. These start at 400 feet, but go as deep as 1,000 feet. This is most lucrative from February to September. 

Not only is this a relatively sustainable practice, but — as King's Seafood Co. explains — the process doesn't kill any prawns along the way. It's important for taste and food safety to prepare and eat prawns immediately after they've been killed, so it's important that this method is gentle.

Spot prawns vs. shrimp

Shrimp and spot prawns are similar in many ways, anatomically belonging to the same family and being found in similar environments. Spot prawns are not the only type of prawn. While prawns are generally found in freshwater environments, per 10Best, spot prawns are only found in the Pacific Ocean. Most comparisons between prawns and shrimp focus on the taste difference between saltwater versus freshwater crustaceans, but that distinction doesn't hold up when discussing spot prawns.

It's also often the case that regular shrimp are more readily available, and as such more affordable on the whole. If you live on the West coast, you have access to fresh shrimp and spot prawns, so the price will likely depend on seasonality. Shrimp are also smaller on the whole than spot prawns. Another visual distinction between the two are claws — spot prawns have claws on their front three pairs of legs, whereas the first two pairs of legs on shrimp are clawed, notes King's Seafood Co. They both have 10 pairs of legs, though.

What do spot prawns taste like?

Seafood lovers will love the decadent taste of spot prawns, which combine the best part of shrimp and lobster in both flavor and texture. According to Catalina Offshore Products, spot prawns have a traditional shrimpy taste, which is both meaty and briny from its saltwater habitat, but they're a little sweeter than a regular shrimp. As for texture, they're very similar to lobster.

There are a variety of ways to enjoy spot prawns, which will be covered later, but one way that really lets the sweet, meaty taste and silky smooth texture of the crustacean shine is raw via sushi. Raw spot prawn will have a very ocean-y taste — even though they'll be cleaned before serving, it will still have a very rich saltwater taste, per Fanatically Food. If you want the sweetness to take the foreground, though, cooking your spot prawn is the best way to bring the flavor out.

How to cook with spot prawns

There are many different ways to prepare, cook, and eat spot prawns, whether raw, steamed, pan-fried, deep-fried, etc. For food safety reasons, though, the only rule is that they're eaten immediately after being killed. Unlike other meats or fish that can be butchered and preserved for a small amount of time after, once spot prawns die, they immediately begin decomposing and release an enzyme that leads to a very mushy, inedible crustacean, warns King's Seafood Co.

If you don't live on the West coast, odds are you'll be buying flash-frozen spot prawns, which are easy enough to toss into a sauce or onto the grill. If you're lucky enough to get your hands on fresh prawns, though, Skipper Otto recommends either cooking them live like you would a lobster, or quickly twisting off their heads, which is where the enzyme is released. Next, rinse them under cold water to get off any brine or dirt — no need to devein them like shrimp. They don't need to be peeled, but it's ideal to do so if adding them to a sauce, or if you want to dice up the meat inside. Grilling them whole is another easy way to get the shells off once done.

Honest Food recommends either grilling them or sauteing them with light, flavorful ingredients like lemon, citrus, chili, horseradish, and garlic as opposed to heavier flavors — though they still go well in soups, stocks, and sauces.

Where to buy spot prawns

Spot prawns are available both fresh and frozen, but your location determines which one you should be looking for. If you live on the West Coast or on the border of the Pacific Ocean, then finding spot prawns should be as simple as visiting your local fish market or store.

If you live somewhere without accessibility to fresh spot prawns, don't fret. The crustacean can be purchased online flash frozen — either whole or just the tails, per Lummi Island Wild. Depending on seasonality, distance, and the company you're purchasing the prawns from, prices will vary. Pike Place Fish Market sells them whole: $70 for 2 pounds, $130 for 4 pounds, $190 for 6 pounds, and $250 for 8 pounds. If you just want the tails, Lummi Island Wild sells 1 pound of small tails for $49, or 1 pound of large tails for $59.

Nutritional information about spot prawns

Seafood, and shrimp especially, are a main component of many people's diets, especially for those seeking out omega-3 fatty acids. According to Beck & Bullow, one serving of spot prawn is roughly 3.5 ounces and contains 155 calories — as well as 26 grams of protein, and 5 grams of fat, which are rich in omega-3s.

However, it's also quite high in sodium, due to its native saltwater habitat, and quite high in cholesterol. The same 3.5-ounce serving has 94 milligrams of cholesterol and 66 milligrams of sodium. If your doctor has told you to monitor your cholesterol, consume spot prawns moderately and cautiously — although Healthline notes that the cholesterol you eat rarely raises the cholesterol levels in your body. Shrimp, and consequently spot prawns, are also super rich in the antioxidant astaxanthin. This can improve heart health, is anti-inflammatory, and can help defend against cognitive illnesses, including Alzheimer's.