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Spot shrimp are Seattle’s best sign of spring

Seattle Post-Intelligencer logo Seattle Post-Intelligencer 5/4/2021 Naomi Tomky, Special to the Seattle P-I

Traditionally, spring feasts celebrate the blossoming of flowers and returning of green to gardens, but in Seattle, the season’s best food comes from the saltwater: spot shrimp.

While the masses flock for Copper River Salmon and rave about the region’s Dungeness crab, spot shrimp somehow stay under the radar – perhaps in need of a new hype man, maybe because those who know worry about a run on the sweet sea creatures.

Spot shrimp deserve parties in recognition of their tender texture and a place of honor among regional delicacies – alongside Olympia oysters and Rainier cherries – for that clean, subtly briny flavor that shows off the terroir (or, in this case, merroir) of the Pacific Northwest. They also represent a rarity among shrimp fisheries – a field crowded with substandard sustainability, abominable labor conditions, and horrific farming practices.

In the Pacific Northwest Seafood Cookbook, I wrote that Americans, on the whole, are “addicted to bad shrimp.” But despite the disadvantages of the terrible shrimp imported by the billions of pounds, Pacific Northwesterners often eat that, instead of the local specialty that is basically the complete opposite: fresh, wild, and closer in flavor and texture to a Maine lobster than a bag of frozen farmed shrimp. But while Maine’s lobster gets flown fresh around the country and feted with festivals, few Seattleites celebrate the spot shrimp as they should.

In British Columbia, no such hesitation exists – spot shrimp season there kicks off with a bang and (in non-pandemic times) big events; customers meet boats at the dock to buy the shrimp fresh and restaurants advertise the arrival on their menus to draw in diners during the short season. But in Seattle, spot shrimp show up to little fanfare in mid-April, petering out at the end of the summer around early September with nary a wave goodbye.

What are spot shrimp?

Though often called spot prawns, they are a type of shrimp – though the difference is minimal and technical and matters little when it comes to how you buy, cook, or eat them. They take their name from the white spots on their tails, though they also have signature white stripes along the head. The rest of the shell is generally a vibrant red. While they can grow up to nine inches, most you’ll find at stores aren’t quite that big – though always full of buttery flavor. You can use them wherever you might use any other type of shrimp in a recipe, but you can also substitute them in for crawfish, or eat them how you would a fresh lobster or crab: barely cooked and unadorned, for easy access to the flavor of the great nearby.

When and where to buy spot shrimp at the store

Shrimp season varies from state to state and region to region, resulting in the longer availability here depending on if they come in locally, from California or Alaska. The sweet sea creatures fill seafood store tanks and swim about until the second someone comes to select them. While you can find frozen spot shrimp in freezers year-round, one of the great joys of eating them comes from their ephemeral freshness. Frozen spot shrimp will almost always be without heads, because spot shrimp begin deteriorating immediately after they die – you will start to see black between the head and body and it destroys the precious meat.

But forget the frozen ones – the reason for waiting until spot shrimp season is to buy it fresh from the tank, head on and still swimming around. Most of the area’s fish markets and Asian markets keep a live tank full of them and will fish them out and bag them up for you. Early season prices are around $18 to $30 per pound, though most years that goes down later in the season. It’s significantly more than you’d pay for many other shrimp, but you are paying for quality, sustainability, and humane treatment of the people bringing them to you. Also, the big flavor means that it’s worth it to buy just a few shrimp as part of a meal – two shrimp alone makes an excellent appetizer, and you can get as much flavor for a broth out of one that you’d get from a bagful of farmed shrimp.

Aim to buy them the same day you plan to eat them, as they will last only a few hours out of the water in your refrigerator, and even if you don’t plan to use the heads in a dish, leave them intact until you are ready to cook them (and then use the heads to make a sauce or stock).

How to cook your spot shrimp

For fresh spot shrimp, try to leave them as unadorned as possible: my personal favorite preparation is to super-heat kosher salt in a 500°F oven, then bury the shrimp in the hot salt for exactly four minutes. Pull them out, brush them off, peel and eat. Then save the heads and tails for stock or sauce. Alternatively, you can gently twist the head and body in opposite directions, peel the tails, and marinate them with chopped shallots and herbs in lemon or lime juice for at least ten minutes or up to 30 for a quick ceviche. While that marinates, dip the heads into a mix of cornstarch, salt, and pepper, then fry in hot oil for two minutes, until brown.

You can throw them quickly onto a grill, lightly poach them in a miso soup, or really, do almost anything with them you would with any shrimp – just keep in mind that to preserve the enviable texture, you’ll want to err on the side of undercooking the spot shrimp.

Where to find spot shrimp on menus

If you’re not ready to dive into the world of cooking spot shrimp at home, look for them at local restaurants. Because of the fragile nature and limited availability, they rarely appear on the standard list of dishes – mostly they spring up on specials boards, seasonal menus, and mouthwatering Instagram shout outs.

Though it’s early in the season yet, so far Layers Sandwich Co has run a Jean-Prawn Van Damme special on their truck with spot prawn escabeche, fried artichoke hearts, and lemon-dill aioli on a toasted hoagie bun, Taiwanese pop-up Ba Ba Lio put them in their slack season noodles, and Sushi Kappo Tamura serves them as nigiri. But as the season goes into full swing locally, look for them to pop on and off menus and specials for the next few months – and if you see them, snag them.  

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