Ingredient of the Year 2008

Over 900,000 tonnes of Tiger prawns are harvested annually, roughly two- thirds coming from warm-water farms that dot the deltas of Southeast Asia. It’s a relatively new and very profitable industry in producer nations like Vietnam, and it has badly wounded the communities that support it. Along with environmental damage have come disease, debt, and dispossession. Despite these sad facts (not to mention that the prawns often feast on antibiotics and growth hormones), the prawns remain an attractive commodity on the global market. Predictable by virtue of their blandness and cheap availability year-round, farmed Tigers will always be an easy sell. Mushy in texture and almost devoid of flavour, they remain manufactured ghosts, shadows of the real thing. (Indeed, if this were a piece on the worst ingredient of the year, farmed prawns would most certainly crack the shortlist.)

The strongest argument against them is that we have always had a superior alternative sourced by fishermen right here at home. Sweet and delicately flavoured, firm on the incisors and succulent on the molars, the B.C. spot prawn—largest of all our local prawns—is one of the finest and best-tasting crustaceans that our oceans surrender. And the fishermen use baited traps on buoy lines, keeping habitat damage and by-catch to a minimum. Supply of the spot prawn has long been ample, but local demand had been minimal. The short season, six- to eight-weeks beginning in May, made it a delicacy overseas and doomed the domestic market. Ninety percent of the catch was whisked to Asia, the remainder going to the few restaurants and markets around B.C. willing to pay a premium price. Enter the Chef’s Table Society. Last May, the local collective of conscientious food lovers, chefs, and restaurateurs helped to develop and promote Vancouver’s first day-boat spot-prawn fishery. To raise public awareness they hosted the 1st Annual Spot Prawn Festival at False Creek’s Fisherman’s Wharf. The event introduced Vancouver chefs and home cooks to the best local ingredient they’d never heard of, and ensured the spot prawn a place on our more forward-thinking menus for years to come.