Sunday, May 31, 2009

Foodbuzz: 24, 24, 24: Vancouver Spot Prawn Festival 2009

In recent years, spot prawns have become the darling of Westcoast chefs. Named for the 4 distinctive white spots on their shells, spot prawns are highly prized for their sweetness and firm textured flesh, especially in Japan where they are eaten raw as sashimi (known as amaebi/ botan ebi). Although spot prawns can be found in the Pacific Ocean on the Westcoast of US and Canada, from Alaska down to San Diego, sustainably harvested British Columbia (BC) spot prawns are considered the best in the world. The short BC spot prawn season averages a mere 8 weeks, beginning in early May this year. Up until a few years ago, 90% of the commercial catch was reserved for the lucrative export market, flash frozen and shipped to Japan. Vancouver chefs were frustrated that they couldn't get their hands on this local gem so a few years ago, the Chefs Table Society of BC devised a way to increase local awareness and demand for spot prawns by hosting an annual festival for the duration of the short season. During these 8 weeks, dozens of local chefs feature spot prawns prominently on their menus. The festival also encourages home cooks to enjoy this sustainable alternative to farmed tiger prawns by purchasing live spot prawns directly from local fishermen at False Creek Fisherman's Wharf.

Since I was lucky enough to be in Vancouver during spot prawn season this year, I took advantage of every opportunity to enjoy this sweet crustacean, ending off my visit with a fabulous 6 course spot prawn tasting menu at
C Restaurant on Saturday, May 30th. C Restaurant's executive chef, Robert Clark, was a key player in creating the annual Spot Prawn Festival and a champion of sustainable seafood, preferring to deal directly with local fisherman rather than rely on the traditional seafood supply chain. C Restaurant's chef de cuisine, the talented Quang Dang, created the exclusive 6 course tasting menu featuring spot prawns from producer/fisherman Steve Johansen of Organic Ocean. Steve supplies approximately 40 local restaurants but you can purchase live spot prawns directly from False Creek Fisherman's Wharf after 1pm daily during spot prawn season (see my Q&A with Steve below). The 6 course spot prawn tasting menu will be offered at C Restaurant throughout the festival for $98 per person (wine pairings for an additional $50 per person).

C Restaurant's Spot Prawn Tasting Menu 2009

The restaurant's location on the water's edge under Granville Bridge offers stunning views of False Creek. The fabulous food and attentive service truly made this a night to remember...

Before the tasting menu began, we were treated with some house potato chips with spicy mayo, an amuse bouche trio of Tuna Escabeche, Celery Water, and Lobster Knuckle (wrapped in pickled asparagus), and a selection from the bread basket (the seaweed black sesame bread was my favorite, delicious with butter sprinkled with volcanic salt):

1st course, Spot Prawn Ceviche, Crispy Head, Red Seaweed: super delicate flavor, with a hint of citrus and chive, crispy battered head was full of prawn-y goodness, gorgeous red seaweed added visual and textural contrast.

2nd course, Spot Prawn Sashimi, Jellied Consommé, Smoked Albacore Tuna Flakes, Compressed Cucumber: the best way to enjoy spot prawns - raw! The jellied spot prawn consomme exploded with intense prawn flavor, albacore tuna flakes added a salty smokey bite, heat from the togarashi spice was offset by the refreshing "compressed" cucumber slices (vacuum sealed with juniper).

3rd Course, Potato Crusted Bayne Sound Scallop, Spot Prawn Ravioli, Pickled Ramps. Brown Butter Caper Sauce: This dish was absolute perfection - crunchy potato crust on a juicy local scallop, juicy whole spot prawn tucked inside the ravioli, sweet pickled ramps, a schmear of stoney paradise raisin puree, and the salty crunch of deep fried capers.

4th Course, Seared Cape Scott Halibut, Herb Poached Spot Prawn, Leek Puree, Black Truffle Gel: my hubby's favorite course; spot prawn was poached beautifully but I would have preferred my halibut cooked a little less. Charred chives added visual interest but didn't add much flavor. Leek puree was very subtle, black truffle gel added some sweetness, gorgeous ribbons of local asparagus (from Whistler) and pickled radish and carrots added some crunch and color.

Bonus Course! Muscovy Duck Breast, Poached Spot Prawn, Watercress Puree & Duck Leg Confit, Leek Confit, Shiitake Mushrooms, Concord Grape Preserve Puree: duck breast had amazing flavor, with no gamey-ness, spot prawn cooked very simply letting its natural sweetness shine through, duck leg confit was mouthwatering, shiitake mushrooms had an irresitible earthy flavor, sweet concord grape puree complemented all the flavors nicely. Getting full at this point!

5th Course, Roasted AAA Beef Ribeye, Salt Baked Pemberton Beets, Spot Prawn Pollen, Brandied Jus: Simply seasoned ribeye, natural flavor of the beef was delicous - medium rare, topped with a tiny amount of the chef's special house XO sauce (dried prawns and scallops, with a bit of heat from ginger?), served with gorgeous local purple beets and chopped sweet yellow rutabaga, but the revelation of this dish was the spot prawn "pollen" -spot prawn broth dried into a sweet prawn powder - melted immediately on your tongue, and the spot prawn "pearls" - luscious tiny spheres made the dish super fun to eat.

6th Course, Dark Chocolate Tartlette, Vanilla ‘Prawn Cracker’: very delicate prawn flavor in the "cracker" reminiscent of Malaysian shrimp keropok - wished I could have had more of these. The malted tartlette was filled with a dark chocolate ganache so bitter that I was surprised to find out that the chocolate used was only 64% cacao. The bitterness of the tarlette was alleviated nicely by the sweetness of the phenomenal house made pistachio ice cream.

After 3 hours of continuous eating, we were stuffed beyond belief, drifting into food comas. Thanks to Chef de Cuisine Quang Dang and all the staff of C Restaurant, especially our awesome waiter Drew, for an amazing culinary experience.

C Restaurant

2-1600 Howe Street
Vancouver, BC, Canada

In addition to the tasting menu, hubby Kris and I ate spot prawns at least 7 other times during our stay in Vancouver:

BC Spot Prawns, Spinach and Mung Bean Sprouts in Coconut and Lemon Curry at world renowned
Vij's restaurant. Owner/celebrity chef Vikram Vij is proud to be one of the only restaurants able to feature local BC spot prawns year-round. His secret? During spot prawn season, producer Steve Johansen of Organic Ocean blast freezes 30,000 pounds of spot prawns in ocean water for Vij. When thawed, you can't tell that they've ever been frozen!

Spot Prawn on Konbu, with Pea Shoot Salad and Tomato Jelly, prepared by Chef Julian Bond of the
Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts (spot prawns from producer Steve Johansen of Organic Ocean), at "For the Love of Fish: From Producer to Plate", a showcase of 8 local sustainable seafoods held by Slow Food Vancouver and Sea Choice at the Italian Cultural Centre on May 28th.

Citrus Olive Oil Poached Spot Prawns, prepared by Chef de Cuisine David Robinson of
Chambar restaurant (recipe by Executive Chef Nico Scheurman), at a spot prawn cooking demonstration at the Public Market on Granville Island on May 16th (as part ot the Spot Prawn Festival 2009). Recipe here.

Spot Prawns (aka "Live Prawns") at
Imperial Court Chinese Restaurant in Richmond, BC

Spot Prawns poached in a dashi broth, with a pea shoot daikon salad and sake yuzu sauce, at
Blue Water Cafe (executive chef: Frank Pabst). This was the only dish I didn't quite "get" - the spot prawns were mushy and bland in flavor. Our waiter, after consulting with the chef, told me that the consistency was achieved by the poaching method. The chef was so distressed upon finding out that we didn't like the dish, he sent out another appetizer on the house - spot prawns served on sea asparagus in a beurre blanc sauce. The sea asparagus was a nice surprise, but the prawns were still mushy. When the waiter came back to ask us whether we liked the 2nd dish, I asked him again whether it was the chef's intention for the prawns to have this consistency and the waiter assured us that everything the chef did was deliberate. Oh well, maybe it's just my unsophisticated palate, Blue Water Cafe is known as one of Vancouver's best seafood restaurants afterall. When I ran into Steve Johansen again at the sustainable seafood showcase, I told him about our experience at Blue Water and he said the mushiness probably resulted from overcooking. Also, according to Chef Julian Bond from the Pacific Culinary Institute of Culinary Arts, if spot prawns die with their heads on and you wait too long to freeze or cook them, stomach acid will leach into their flesh and make them mushy.

Live Spot Prawns from Steve Johansen of Organic Ocean at False Creek Fisherman's Wharf ($12 per pound, 10/11 count per pound)

Spot Prawn "Sashimi", fresh off Steve's boat!

Steve Johansen's spot prawns, as prepared by my mother for our family dinner. My mom's simple spot prawn recipe: In a wok, sauté thinly sliced garlic in vegetable oil till slightly crispy. Remove garlic and set aside. Add live prawns to garlic oil left in the wok and sauté for 2 minutes. Season lightly with white pepper and soy sauce. Add a splash of water to wok and cover, letting prawns steam for an additional 2 minutes. Garnish with crispy garlic and serve with steamed rice and veggies.

How to eat a head-on spot prawn (do this over a bowl of steamed rice so it soaks up all the yummy prawn juices)
1. Gently remove head from body:
2. Suck all the brainy goodness out of the prawn head. Hubby Kris gladly passed me all his prawn heads ("I don't suck head" - Kris):
3. Open the head - grab the biggest pointy spiky thing protruding from head with one hand and gather all other dangly thingys with the other hand and pull apart head. This step is optional but there are some tiny edible pieces inside the head (do not eat the gill-like thingys or the dark sac in the head):
4. Lastly, remove shell and tail from body:

My favorite way to eat spot prawns? Raw, fresh off the boat. No cooking necessary!

Want to know more about spot prawns? Here are some cool facts from my favorite BC spot prawn fishermen...

Q&A with Steve Johansen and Frank Keitsch from Organic Ocean

Q: What’s an average day like during spot prawn season?
At 6:30am, seven days a week, Steve and Frank leave Fisherman’s Wharf in their dayboat and head 5 to 15 miles into the Pacific Ocean to empty and reset 300 traps in their “secret” spots (fishermen are understandably very secretive about where they fish). They keep the harvested spot prawns alive and happy in holding tanks in their boat (filled with cold ocean water) and return to Fisherman’s Wharf around 1pm daily, where they’ll sell spot prawns to the public until they sell out for the day (sometimes in as little as 1 hour!) Steve’s company, Organic Ocean, also supplies approximately 40 local restaurants with his high quality spot prawns. In the past month, he’s expanded his distribution to Toronto, Canada, shipping live prawns overnight to approximately 20 Toronto restaurants.

Q: Why is spot prawn fishing sustainable?
Spot prawns are trap fisheries – there are no nets being dragged along the ocean floor. Traps also result in virtually no bi-catch and do not damage the ocean floor. Great care is taken by local fisheries to ensure responsible fishing and sustainability - spot prawn season opens only after the mature spot prawns have finished spawning and have molted, and there is no danger of overfishing because the season is only open for 6 to 8 weeks every year. Spot prawn fishing licenses are limited and expensive to obtain. There are also trap per license, single haul per day, and minimum harvest size restrictions. During spot prawn season, a spawner index is taken regularly to ensure there is no overfishing; areas are closed off if there is any indication that they may be getting overfished. According to Steve, the 2009 season should last till the 1st week in July. After spending so much time getting up close and personal with live spot prawns, I was starting to feel sorry for personally consuming so many of the cute little guys. But according to Steve and Frank, spot prawns only live an average of 4 years and will die soon after they lay their eggs, so most of the spot prawns that end up on our dinner plates were on already on their “death march” before being caught.

Q: Why are spot prawns better than tiger prawns?
Most of the tiger prawns you’ll come across are farmed and grown in what Steve and Frank refer to as “sewer lagoons” (referring to the high levels of toxicity measured in farmed tiger prawns). Wild spot prawns from fresh BC waters taste sweet because of their short 4 year life span which limits the buildup of toxins and metals.

Q: What was Steve’s role in the creating the annual Spot Prawn Festival?
Around 4 years ago, Steve took Robert Clark, Executive Chef of C Restaurant, Raincity Grill, and Nu out for a day of spot prawning on his boat. At the time, 90% of all BC Spot Prawns were being exported to Japan. The remaining 10% were sold to Chinatown and local Asian markets. Robert Clark wanted to know how he could get his hands on some of these local spot prawns for his own restaurants; the 100 mile diet had just been published and local restaurants and consumers were starting to embrace local sustainable BC products. Together, Robert and Steve came up with the idea for a festival to celebrate local spot prawns and to keep them “at home”. The 1st spot prawn festival took place in 2007 and had around 300 people show up during the launch. By the following year, attendance at the official kickoff reached over a thousand. This year, it was “total chaos” at the 3rd Annual Spot Prawn Festival launch on May 9th (excellent coverage of the kickoff event by fellow blogger Ho Yummy here) with an estimated 2000 people showing up to sample spot prawns from 10 local chefs (including Tojo Hidekazu from Tojo’s, Robert Belcham from Fuel, Andrea Carlson from Bishop’s, and Quang Dang from C Restaurant). Many local chefs have also been out fishing with Steve to see how spot prawns are caught (Steve was even nice enough to invite me to go fishing one day, but I had to graciously decline – my inner ear imbalance would force me to jump off the tiny boat and swim back to shore. I know all you fellow bloggers are shaking your head at me – yeah, I should have just sucked it up and gone prawning, but my motion sickness is honestly so bad that I’ve gotten seasick before on a 130,000 ton cruise ship).

Q: So how many of Steve’s spot prawns are being shipped to Japan nowadays?
Steve was very proud to tell me that every spot prawn he caught last season was sold locally! Vancouver restaurants are now able to get their hands on high export quality spot prawns previously reserved for the lucrative Japanese market.

Q: Organic Ocean is selling spot prawns fresh off the boat for $12 per lb. So how are Asian supermarkets such as T&T able to sell live spot prawns for less?
Look at the size and quality of the live prawns from the Asian markets compared to the prawns available from Steve at Fisherman’s Wharf. At the Asian markets, the prawns are considerably smaller and represent the crap that’s left once the higher quality prawns are picked out for export to Japan. After doing my own comparison of spot prawns available around Vancouver, I would gladly pay $12 a pound for the giant beauties caught by Steve and Frank. There’s a reason why all the top local restaurants only use Organic Ocean as their spot prawn supplier.

Q: How can you tell a spot prawn is fresh?
A: Clear heads, no dark spots.

Q: Any little known facts about spot prawns?
A: Spot Prawns are hermaphrodites, born male and eventually becoming female to lay eggs at the end of their life. Also, spot prawns are clear and almost colorless when first caught! Their coloring begins to deepen when you first take them out of the traps and they turn redder as they get nearer to death. Steve and Frank think the color change has something to do with the pressure of the ocean as spot prawns typically live 300 – 500 feet deep.

Q: So what’s next, now that Organic Ocean spot prawns have conquered Vancouver and Toronto?
A: Hoping to introduce spot prawns to New York in the near future!

Special thanks to Steve Johansen and Frank Keitsch of Organic Ocean for taking the time to answer all my questions! Go down to Fisherman's Wharf and visit them sometime - they are seriously the nicest guys around. Their enthusiasm about what they do for a living was totally contagious (Hubby Kris wants to be a spot prawn fisherman now; he even ate the spot prawn sashimi off the boat!).

Looking for live spot prawns to cook?
You can buy live spot prawns from Organic Ocean daily after 1pm for $12 a pound at the False Creek Fisherman's Wharf for the duration of spot prawn season. For more information about the Spot Prawn Festival, contact Steve Johansen of Organic Ocean at 778.231.9453 or email:

Rather someone else do the cooking?
Check the
Chefs Table Society website for a list of 40 local restaurants participating in the Spot Prawn festival.

Details on specific restaurants:

C Restaurant, 6 course Spot Prawn Tasting Menu for $98 per person throughout the season

Fuel Restaurant - Spot Prawn "Boil" for $85 per person every Saturday at 7pm throughout the season (prepare to get your hands dirty!)

Vij's - Spot Prawns featured on the menu all year round

Go Fish!
- Just a few steps from Fisherman's Wharf, cooking up spot prawn specials daily during the season. Also the best fish 'n' chips in Vancouver.

Also check Vancouver for a great list of restaurants where you can get your "prawn on"!

Happy Eating!



Anonymous said...

Phyllis, it's so great to see you back! What an amazing post! The prawn tasting menu is outstanding! And excellent information in the Q&A section! Fabulous!

KennyT said...

Welcome back, Phyllis, I love spot prawns too, and I do the same thing, sucking the heads, yum yum yum^^!

Jenn said...

Welcome back!! It's amazing to see how versatile a prawn can be. I don't think I've had this kind though. The juices from the head are so good. They make good broth, too.

Heavenly Housewife said...

Ah, Phyllis, you are back :D!!!! I am so happy!!!! I just got back today too, from Barcelona! Missed you *huggs*. I bet you are happy to be home.
I have never eaten prawns believe it or not. I am not well versed in sea creatures. I had my first ever lobster this week and I loved it.

Chow and Chatter said...

great post i love Vancouver beautiful city, such an educational post and amazing food looks like a good time was had by all lol

Anonymous said...

Holy Cow, no wonder you were off line for a month - that's a heck of a post gal! It would have taken me two.

What an incredible experience. I made the mistake of reading it before I had dinner. not a good idea.

gigi said...

Thanks for the shout out, Phyllis! :) Glad to hear you had such a great time in Vancouver during the spot prawn season...looking at all your pictures makes me want to go and eat more prawns! I also liked your Q&A section...great trivia and background info on spot prawns.

Phyllis said...

5 star foodie: Thanks for your kind comment - I had to bust out this post after travelling all day and getting motion sick on the flight home. But I was really lucky to eat all those spot prawns while in Vancouver. I highly recommend Vancouver in May - spot prawns and gorgeous weather!

Kenny: yum is right - all the flavor is inside those prawn heads! And I managed to even get Hubby Kris to try sucking one (me: "Suck Harder! HARDER!!").

Jenn: hard to find live spot prawns since the season is so short they only live in few places in the world - look for the distinct 4 white spots on their back. They are super sweet and their texture is like lobster when cooked. Asian markets usually just call them "live prawns". You can find them at high end sushi restaurants (amaebi and botan ebi)but they've most likely been frozen previously - but will still taste good if they been frozen properly.

Heavenly Housewife: Missed you lots too. Barcelona - how exciting! Can't wait to catch up on your blog. And if you liked lobster, you'll love spot prawns! Might be hard to find them in England though.

Chow and Chatter: Too good of a time, especially foodwise! We ate an obscene amount of food. Thanks for checking out my blog!

Oysterculture: seriously, this post is just the beginning. Once I'm done with laundry and mail, I have so many more Vancouver eating adventures to share. And zero access to a computer during my trip means I'll be working off some messy scribbled notes :)

gigi: no prob, your blog is awesome, hope everyone checks it out. And thanks again for all your Vancouver tips! Only 5 weeks left in spot prawn season - eat all you can!

KennyT said...

R.F.L.M.A.O. ^______^

Nate-n-Annie said...

Hello, fellow "24"er!

What an awesome, awesome post. I love spot prawns, especially as amaebi sushi. But your meal showcased so many different and wonderful ways to eat this.

I also liked that you had the interview with the fisherman himself.

Excellent meal, excellent photos and descriptions, excellent interview. I'd say you have the best "24" post of this round!

Thanks for taking us along with you to Vancouver for this event. We took our guests to Hawaii for a luau. We invite you to come to our blog and check it out!

The Duo Dishes said...

Wow, this is quite a feast of prawns. Not sure if we're ready to dehead them before eating, but serve them up ready to go, and we can eat. Nice 24 post.

Eileen said...

What a great post! Prawn sashimi.... yum! The 6 course dinner made me drool....

Salt N Turmeric said...

Hi Phyllis! Congrats on being chosen for May 24 as well.

Holy prawn! That is a lot of prawn. Too bad hubby doesn't eat much of seafood so i can't really go to 100% seafood restaurants. lol.


Frugal said...

Great post, tons of information. I don't necessary believe that the asian store sell less quality prawns. I was able to purchase them for less at T&T, it worked out to be about 11 prawns a pound. Often I find that people will turn their nose down on asian stores because of what they can offer for less. But that's just my two cents.

Phyllis said...

Nate-n-Annie: Totally blushing! Thank you for your sweet comments!

Duo Dishes: Prawns are one of the only ingredients that I'll roll up my sleeves and get dirty for. Sucking the head is the best part. Hope you cross over the dark side one day! :)

Eileen: Prawns were still wiggling a bit when we bit into them - really sweet and amazing. Hope you get to try them fresh like this one day!

Salt N Turmeric: Well, with all that yummy Malaysian food you are making, I wouldn't miss the seafood either!

Frugal: Hi, thanks for visiting! I’m glad you were able to get a great deal on prawns at T&T. Don’t get me wrong, I love T&T and think Asian markets are a great source for fresh seafood and ingredients at amazing prices. My parents do their grocery shopping at T&T every other day. After talking to Steve Johansen about the distribution of BC spot prawns, I visited two T&T supermarkets in the lower mainland and compared their live prawns to the ones at Fisherman’s Wharf. I personally found that you can’t beat the freshness and quality of prawns right off the boat. But that’s just my opinion. However, one of my friends held her own 7 course spot prawn tasting at home using T&T prawns and it was a smashing success. So enjoy your delicious spot prawns, wherever you may get them! (So jealous, I’m currently experiencing spot prawn withdrawal!)

Tangled Noodle said...

WELCOME BACK! You've been missed but you certainly know how to return with flair!!

This is an awesome post! Reviews, interviews and awesome pics, all in one. You must have had a lot of blogging mojo pent up while you were gone. These spot prawns are fantastic and I wish I could get a hold of some; I'd love to try them raw, as suggested.

It's great to see you back online and in time for Weird Food Wednesday. I'm off to check it out . . . !

Phyllis said...

Tangled Noodle: Why, thank you dahling! So glad to be back!

Justin said...

holy cow, this post isn't long enough... just kidding. seriously though, it's like a small book. great stuff. that pic of eating the stuff out of the prawn head reminds me of New Orleans and sucking the crayfish heads. I wish I had a photo of me doing that last year, but maybe it's better there is no evidence!

Phyllis said...

Justin: Yes, trying to break the record for the longest blog post ever. Imagine how long it would have been if I didn't have the foodbuzz deadline. And thrilled that you're a proud card-carrying member of the crustacean head-sucking club.

Jessica604 said...

Hello! I just stumbled onto your blog while doing a search for Foodbuzz Food Blogging Festival, but I'm glad to have found it! Glad to find another Vancouver food blogger (?); I'll have to keep an eye out for next years spot prawn festival!

IFB marine said...

Thanks for this blog!!
your blog is very informative and feeling good to see huge collection of prawns and their recipesprawn distribution in India