Prawn prices go bananas for Christmas

From left: Cooked king prawn, raw tiger prawn and raw banana prawn from Gazza's Gourmet Seafood at Queen Victoria Market ...
From left: Cooked king prawn, raw tiger prawn and raw banana prawn from Gazza's Gourmet Seafood at Queen Victoria Market in Melbourne.  Photo: Christopher Hopkins

Australian prawns will be in abundance this Christmas say seafood industry experts, however consumers can expect to pay a high price for the extra-large shellfish. 

"People want really big prawns for the barbie at Christmas but there hasn't been as many come through as usual, which is pushing the price up quite a lot," said Gary Rapley, the owner of Gazza's Gourmet Seafood at Melbourne's Queen Victoria Market. 

"I nearly had a heart attack when I bought a plate of the big ones this week and saw the bill."

Gary Rapley from Gazza's Gourmet Seafood at Queen Victoria Market, Melbourne.
Gary Rapley from Gazza's Gourmet Seafood at Queen Victoria Market, Melbourne. Photo: Christopher Hopkins

The director of Fishtales seafood sales and consultancy company, John Susman, said drought could be affecting the size of wild-caught prawns, which can feed on insects washed into waterways with rain. 

"As the saying goes, drought on the land is drought in the sea," he said.

"There's every chance wild prawns don't have enough food in the water to reach those extra large, jumbo sizes people want for the holidays."

A bucket of prawns will be the rock stars of the Christmas table.
A bucket of prawns will be the rock stars of the Christmas table. Photo: Quentin Jones

Australians are expected to eat 50,000 tonnes prawns over the Christmas period - enough to fill 20 Olympic-sized swimming pools - according to data from peak body Seafood Industry Australia.

Meanwhile, a new national study conducted by YouGov for the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) reports that 77 per cent of respondents surveyed said that "Christmas wouldn't be the same without prawns on their plate".

Mr Rapley said he expects jumbo tiger and king prawns to sell for $45 to $50 a kilogram by Christmas Eve, while medium wild-caught cooked prawns should remain close to $30 a kilogram. "I already have medium prawns in the freezer, they're ready to go."

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Sydney Fish Market tour guide and educator Alex Stollznow said those prices should hold at the Pyrmont site too, where more than 130 tonnes of prawns are expected to sell over the Christmas rush.

"Customers should be able to find medium-sized prawns at only 10 per cent above their winter low-volume price," he said.

"Because prawn production is geared around Christmas, there won't be as much of a price hike as people might think."

Cooked king prawns are general good all-rounders.
Cooked king prawns are general good all-rounders. Photo: Christopher Hopkins

Mr Susman said MSC-certified sustainable banana prawns represent excellent value this year due to a significantly higher than average haul in Australia's northern waters.

The bumper catch has lead to pizza chain Domino's using more banana prawns and retail giants such as Coles replacing imported prawns with Australian-caught stock in supermarket delicatessens.

"There's a lot of beautiful banana prawns being sold for very cheap in both independent and major retailers at the moment," Mr Susman said. 

Always peel raw banana prawns before cooking.
Always peel raw banana prawns before cooking. Photo: Christopher Hopkins

"They're a bloody pain to peel once cooked though, so I would encourage anyone to make sure the shells are removed if any prawns are destined for the barbie."  

Mr Stollznow said banana prawns now sell for about $20 a kilogram, which is a "crazy price" so close to Christmas, but he expects it to hold.

Consumers chasing the best price on tiger and king prawns should consider buying their Christmas supply this weekend, Mr Susman said.

Buy tiger prawns raw and cook in their shell.
Buy tiger prawns raw and cook in their shell. Photo: Christopher Hopkins

"Ask a fishmonger for a three- or five-kilogram box of frozen wild Australian prawns, whack them in your freezer at home and take them out on Christmas Eve," he said.

"Leave them at the bottom of your fridge overnight and on Christmas Day quickly wash them in an icy salt slurry."

Mr Susman recommends a slurry mix of one cup of salt, two litres of tap water and three kilos of ice.

"They'll firm up beautifully and be the rock stars of the table. Plus, you will have spared yourself from the frustration of dealing with everyone else buying prawns in the mad Christmas rush."

A field guide to Australian prawns for Christmas

Wild-caught prawn fisheries operate throughout Australia's diverse fishing areas, producing 82 per cent of the total Australian prawn volume.

The remaining volume produced in Australia is farmed, with prawn aquaculture starting in the late 1980s. Imported prawns, usually from Asia, account for 64 per cent of the total market supply to meet demand. 

"There's a prawn for every pocket," Mr Susman said.

"The quality of imported and domestic farmed prawns is generally excellent, with consistency of size, flavour and texture.

"Wild prawns, on the other hand, will give you a surround-sound cinema experience of flavour in regards to their complexity and depth. 

"Buyer beware, however. While a wild prawn has the potential to hit the high notes much higher, it may also hit the low notes much lower.

"Hassle your fishmonger to make sure thawed prawns smell sweet and briny before committing to buy."

Prawns with the MSC blue fish tick logo are traceable back to healthy populations, while the Love Australian Prawns website features a list of the best domestic prawn retailers around the country. 

Banana prawn

Has a firm bite and long, sweet back palate with light grassiness. Commonly sold green (raw) with the shell removed, Mr Stollznow recommends using bananas in a pasta or stir-fry where the sauce is dominant. "If banana prawns are left on the barbie for half-a-can of beer too long, they're going to eat terribly," Mr Susman said. "Cook them quickly on a low heat with lots of butter instead."

King prawn

Generally larger than tiger prawns, and characterised by an upfront sweetness leading to a rich savoury taste. "A lot of customers say to me 'I want a king prawn', but what they actually want is a really big prawn and don't understand king prawn is the species, not the size," Mr Rapley said. "They're just a really good all-rounder. Anything you want to do with a prawn, you can do with a king."

Tiger prawn 

"It's important to differentiate between wild and farmed tigers," Mr Stollznow said. "The wild tiger is the prettiest prawn in the country, but the farmed black tigers are also incredible. Farms in northern NSW and southern Queensland prime the species to be at their best in time for Christmas." Mr Susman said a fresh farmed tiger prawn has moderate levels of sweetness and flavour, whereas a wild tiger has savoury complexity if handled correctly. "It's best to buy wild tiger prawns raw and always cook them in their shell."

Good Food's Christmas television special, Easiest Christmas Ever, airs at 5:25pm on Channel 9 today.