Spot prawns (Pandalus platyceros) look like tiny lobsters. These sea creatures have a firm texture and amazingly sweet taste that many liken to the best lobster. Fun fact: spot prawns are technically shrimp. Spot prawns are often associated with Santa Barbara, where they are harvested in limited amounts every summer. Some people, especially in California, reflexively call all spot prawns "Santa Barbara spot prawns." This is not entirely accurate since spot prawns grow and are harvested in much of the coastal North Pacific Ocean, from San Diego all the way up to Alaska. The bulk of the commercial fishery for spot prawns is actually in British Columbia.
How to Buy Spot Prawns
Like most other crustaceans, spot prawns should be bought while still alive because they are extremely perishable. It's rare to find fishmongers that sell spot prawns. Some places that sell spot prawns will sell the just-deceased specimens laid out on ice next to the live tank where they once flourished. They should be cheaper than the live ones. If you choose to go this route, remove their heads as soon as possible to minimize decay and be sure to cook them the same day you buy them. Or, if your budget allows, buy the live ones.
Are Spot Prawns Sustainably Caught?
Sustainably caught spot prawns are caught in traps and hand-picked from those traps, a practice which, along with well-monitored seasons to allow for ample reproduction, keeps the fishery sustainable up and down the West Coast of North America. The labor-intensive method of sustainable harvest also makes these little critters quite expensive if you don't have a boat, prawn pots, and a fishing license to go out and harvest them yourself.
When Are Spot Prawns Available?
Spot prawns are in season somewhere along the West Coast from February through November. While it may seem like a long time, the actual season in any given locale is short: just six to eight weeks in most places. Spot prawns are rare to find at retail shops outside of British Columbia. Most of the California catch goes directly to restaurants and much of the Alaska catch is exported.
How to Cook Spot Prawns
Lots of people prefer not to cook spot prawns at all, but to serve them as sushi, or amaebi, "sweet shrimp." In this case, the meat from the body is served raw and the heads are fried and served alongside. No matter the preparation, the heads are usually cooked and served since they contain lots of juice and flavor. They should not be just discarded and if not eaten, can be used to make shrimp stock.
You can cook spot prawns as you would any shrimp or prawn. Just a few minutes in a hot pan getting stirred to cook them evenly was a good solution, although plenty of people prefer to steam their spot prawns. Spot prawns also make an excellent addition to a dish of paella.
In most areas, spot prawns with their roe, or eggs, still attached are returned to the sea. It's good practice for managing the fishery and keeping the spot prawn harvest sustainable. If, however, you happen to have access to spot prawns with their roe, know that they are a fabulously rich and delicious treat.