What Are Spot Prawns?

A Guide to Buying, Cooking, and Storing Spot Prawns

Fresh spot prawns on ice

The Spruce / Molly Watson

Spot prawns look like tiny lobsters but are technically shrimp. Whatever you call them, these little crustaceans are so sweet and succulent, they will have you singing "California Dreamin'" in no time at all. Read on to learn what they are, where to find them (and when), and how best to cook them (or not).

What Are Spot Prawns?

Spot prawns (Pandalus platyceros) are little sea creatures that have a delicate texture and amazingly sweet taste that many liken to a combination of the best lobster and fresh-churned butter. They are often closely associated with Santa Barbara, where they are harvested in limited amounts every summer. Some people, especially Californians, reflexively call spot prawns "Santa Barbara spot prawns." By the same token, many people in Alaska refer to them as Alaskan spot prawns. And they are all right because 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, however, is actually in British Columbia.

Sustainably fished spot prawns are caught in traps and then hand selected. This practice, along with well-monitored fishing 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 unless you have a boat, prawn pots, and a fishing license to go out and get them yourself. Most shellfish aficionados, however, believe spot prawns are worth the price.

How to Cook Spot Prawns

One of the best ways to prepare spot prawns is not to cook them at all, but rather serve them raw as sushi or sashimi, known as amaebi or "sweet shrimp." In this case, remove the heads, peel the shrimp, devein, and refrigerate. Then dust the heads in flour or a tempura batter, fry, and serve the raw chilled sweet shrimp with the crispy heads, lemon, soy sauce, and wasabi. To prepare in this way, the spot prawns must be fresh out of the water.

You can also cook spot prawns as you would any shrimp or prawn: grilled, broiled, sautéed, fried, or steamed, with the head and shell on, or off. (Note: Spot prawn heads are delicious, so even if you remove them, be sure to use them to make a shrimp stock. Also, as the shells are quite thin, leaving them on when deep-frying gives the shrimp wonderful crispiness and makes them even more succulent in a peel-yourself steaming version.) Spot prawns also make an excellent addition to a dish of paella, a seafood stew, or a quick simple sauté tossed with pasta.

In most areas, spot prawns with their roe (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 ever happen to come across spot prawns with their roe, know that they are a fabulously rich and delicious treat.

What Do Spot Prawns Taste Like?

Spot prawns taste like the best shrimp you have ever had. The texture is delicate, almost buttery, providing a sort of melt-in-your-mouth sensation, and the flavor is sweet, fresh, and briny.

Spot Prawns vs. Tiger Prawns

While spot prawns are not truly prawns but rather shrimp, Tiger prawns (Penaeus monodon) are bona fide members of the prawn genus. Generally speaking, prawns are larger than shrimp, but one of the key defining features between the two crustaceans is the claw structure: Both have five sets of legs (10 legs total); shrimp have claws on the first two sets of legs, whereas prawns have claws on the first three sets.

Tiger prawns, which can grow up to about 13 inches, are indeed much larger than spot prawns, which max out at about five inches. Where spot prawns are found only along the Pacific Coast of North America and into the Japanese Sea, Tiger prawns (which are thought to have originated in Asia), can now be found in many areas of the world. And while Tiger prawns are one of the most widely farmed species of prawns and shrimp families, spot prawns remain wild.

Most important, however, is the difference in taste. Because Tiger shrimp are significantly larger, the texture is a bit firmer and more resilient, whereas spot prawns are soft and melt-in-your-mouth buttery, with a slight pleasant resistance. Tiger prawns are meatier and great for grilling. On the other hand, spot prawns are great to eat raw or simply steamed in order to savor their sweet, briny flavor.

Spot Prawns Recipes

One of the best—and certainly the purest—way to savor the sweet taste and delicate texture of spot prawns is to eat them raw. But to do so, they must be impeccably fresh. If you purchase frozen spot prawns or buy fresh, then freeze some of your own, there are many ways to use them.

Where to Buy Spot Prawns

The best way to buy spot prawns is either live or very, very fresh. This can be tricky because availability is, well, spotty. The best bet is to let your trusted fishmonger know you are interested in them and ask them to let you know if and when they come across any really good spot prawns in the commercial market.

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. It is rare to find spot prawns at retail shops outside of British Columbia. Most of the California catch goes directly to restaurants, and much of the Alaska catch is exported.

Storing Spot Prawns

Fresh spot prawns should be used immediately, especially if they are going to be eaten raw. Raw spot prawns, either with peel or without, can be tightly wrapped and stored in the freezer for up to six months. The heads should be removed and frozen separately to be used for shrimp or shellfish stock. While cooked shrimp can be frozen too, it is preferable to store them in the fridge and use within two or three days.

Note that the vast majority of shrimp on the market that appear to be fresh, have actually been frozen and thawed. (This is usually indicated on the price tag; if it isn't, ask your fish purveyor.) While there is nothing wrong with refreezing previously frozen shrimp, they tend to lose some of the flavor and develop a tougher cottony texture.

If you make a stew or paella, portions may be frozen in airtight plastic containers for up to six months.