In 1984, the Australian Tourism Commission started running a TV advert starring the comedian and actor Paul Hogan who a couple of years later would make his name with the film Crocodile Dundee. In the adverts – specifically aimed at encouraging an American audience to visit Down Under – Hogan stands at a barbecue with the famous Sydney Opera House in the background. He holds up a large king prawn, looks at the camera and says, “Come and say G’day. I'll slip an extra shrimp on the barbie for you."
The adverts were a hit: before they aired, Australia languished around number 78 on Americans’ list of ‘most desired’ holiday destinations; shortly afterwards the country was in the top ten and then in the top two. But the advert was also successful in cementing the image of Australians as not only dedicated barbecuers, but also lovers of shrimp – preferably grilled in the great outdoors.
Today, Australians eat around 25kg of seafood per person each year and the prawn, as they’re called in Australia, is one of the most important seafoods in the nation’s fisheries. Shrimps are much smaller, although, confusingly, Americans use “shrimp” to mean the larger prawn, and that’s why Hogan used the word in the commercials.
At Christmas – high summer in Australia – turkey with all the trimmings is less of a tradition than seafood, and prawns always take centre stage. During the Christmas week, prawns are sold in record numbers, almost the same quantity as in the whole of June and July. According to the Australian Prawn Farmers Association, of the 15,000 tonnes of prawns produced and consumed in Australia, 6 million kilograms are sold during the Christmas season.
Although prawns are farmed in New South Wales and Queensland and imported from Asia, it is the wild-caught prawns native to Australian waters that are most prized. There are four main species: King, Tiger, Banana and Endeavour prawns.
King prawns are found around the entire Australian coastline and can be any size – they’re not universally huge as the name might suggest. Those found in certain areas carry the local name such as Mooloolaba Kings, Hay Point Kings or Spencer Gulf Kings.
Tiger prawns, meanwhile, feature grey, blue or black stripes on their backs and are wildcaught as well as farmed, making them versatile and reliable as they are always available. Their looks also make them the prawn of choice for restaurants and hotels wanting to create an arresting seafood display. Tiger prawns usually weigh 35-50g and tend to be served whole, dipped in mayo or aioli, or as garlic prawns.
Banana prawns are distinctly milder in flavour than the King or Tiger prawn and also more affordable. Available year round as wild-caught or farmed, they’re popular for the way they hold their shape during cooking and compliment lighter, more delicately flavoured dishes.
And finally there’s the Endeavour prawn, which has a distinctively sweet flavour. Although these crustaceans are far from good-looking (in the prawn world – not in itself a beauty pageant) and are generally on the smaller side at 22-30g, in a prawn taste test conducted in February 2007, it was the Endeavour that won by a nautical mile. Found in Australia’s warmer northern waters, these wild-caught prawns suit dishes with stronger, spicier flavours. The humble prawn is also hailed as something of a seafood superfood. In just 100 grams of farmed black Tiger prawns there’s the same omega 3 as in 1,000 grams of chicken breast. And naturally, the prawn has also slipped into the nation’s slang. As early as 1893, “prawn” was being used to mean “fool”, and it has developed into a phrase: “Don’t come the raw prawn with me” – that is, don’t treat me like a fool.
Fair dinkum, as Paul Hogan might say.