How to Find Local Prawns This Fall

Most folks don’t know the difference between a shrimp and a prawn; I didn’t. I thought prawns were just bad-ass big shrimp. Wrong. Whole different animal.

“Prawns are hatched in salty water and go to fresh water,” said Charles Mattingly of Glade Creek Farm near Des Arc, Mo. “Shrimp are hatched in fresh and go to salt water.”

This month, when pond temperatures reach 70 degrees, local prawn farmers will stock ponds. Fresh out of the egg, prawns are no bigger than a speck. “Mine are hatched in Texas, taken to a nursery in southern Illinois, then raised to juveniles, about an inch long or so,” said Mattingly. After the juveniles enter the pond, the farmer feeds, waits and hopes until harvest in September. “My first year I stocked 20,000 juveniles and harvested 11 pounds of shrimp.” Eight years later, Mattingly’s ponds yield 300 pounds of prime prawns.

Still, farmers like Mattingly take nothing for granted. Turtles like to snack on juveniles. A spring or fall dip in temperature can wipe out an entire crop. Overspray of pesticides from neighboring farms can kill all the prawns in the pond. So why raise them? Not for good looks. A mature prawn is one ugly animal. But prawn growers claim nothing beats the taste of fresh, local prawns.

“Prawns are like lobster in consistency and flavor,” said Brenda Lyons of Lyons Fisheries in Sandoval, Ill. “The animal itself looks like shrimp, but the taste is sweet, like lobster.” Prawn scampi, barbecued prawns and a prawn-papaya salad top her list of favorites. “For the salad, I carve the meat from a fresh papaya, chop the prawns, add a bit of crunch with chopped sweet onions. The dressing is curry and mayonnaise with a squirt of lemon juice. For sweetness, add chutney or raisins.”

The Shawnee Freshwater Prawn Growers Association’s cookbook, Gotta Have That Cookbook, features Lyons’ recipes and more from other members. Lyons is secretary and treasurer of the 40-member association; her husband, J.C., is president. “We work hard to help others,” she said. She’s generous with her time, hosting tours for the University of Illinois Extension sustainable agriculture program. “In these trying times we need all the help we can get,” she said.

Luckily, Lyons and other farmers have Paul Hitchens, aquaculture specialist at the Fisheries and Aquaculture Center at SIU-Carbondale. Hitchens came to Illinois from Ecuador in 2003 after a 21-year stint raising shrimp, tilapia, oysters, clams and redfish. He is both technical adviser to the farmers and marketer for their products. He knows what sells locally grown prawns: “Taste, No. 1. The differentiation you get with freshness is unbelievable. Plus you don’t have the sodium content as in ocean shrimp,” he said. “Quality, compared to the imported unknown. We raise an antibiotic-free animal. Good feed. Prawns can eat from a pond’s natural productivity, but most farmers feed Purina shrimp chow. It’s not called that, but it’s a vitamin-rich feed made for prawns.”

Hitchens likes his prawns grilled. “I make a heavy-duty tinfoil boat. Add prawns, de-headed, peeled and deveined. Squeeze on some lime juice, add a little butter and lemon pepper. Don’t cover the tinfoil, just close the lid on the grill, flip once after two minutes, close down and cook another minute. When they start to turn red, take them off.”

So how to get these lush beauties? Unfortunately, you’ll have to wait – prawns are harvested in the fall. But you can plan an autumn road trip now: Lyons Fisheries harvests Sept. 26 and 27. If those dates don’t work, mark Sept. 20 on your calendar and travel to Glade Creek Farm.

“We sell our prawns right on the bank of the pond,” said Glade Creek’s Mattingly. “We take the prawns out of the pond and put them in a cold-water bath, then we pack them in ice and put them in the customers’ coolers. The average sale is about 5 pounds, just right for a boil.”

Oh, yes. A boil. With potatoes, corn and onions. If the shrimp are cooked in the shell, plan to use twice as much spice. Local prawn shells take on hardness from the water – a good thing. At Lyons Fisheries, Brenda Lyons will add canned green beans and Cajun spices to the boil she makes for the harvest help. Lucky workers.

It’ll be tough to wait till September for fresh prawns. Thankfully, Illinois-farmed hybrid striped bass are available now. Paul Hitchens markets them, too. The very freshest available – as in swimming in tanks – are at Seafood City Chinese Grocery on Olive Boulevard in University City. Bass on the grill while we dream of prawns? You bet.