A pilgrimage for prawns in Vancouver

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Posted June 2, 2012 by Cinda Chavich in British Columbia

Story by Cinda Chavich
Vacay.ca Senior Writer

VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA — If ever there was a food that deserved a pilgrimage, it’s the BC spot prawn.

Steve Johansen with a bounty of BC spot prawns. (Cinda Chavich/Vacay.ca)

Our own very unique coastal crustacean, the spot prawn is only fished in May and June, and chefs rise to the seasonal occasion with special menus and festivals that make eating your fill of this sweet, pink wonder a local sport, whether you’re dining at a top table in Vancouver or Victoria, or on a wild beach in Tofino.

A real delicacy — with a premium price tag — the wild spot prawn is a unique species, found only in west coast waters. It’s a rare carnivore among the mainly vegetarian prawn population, ergo, it can be trapped, like a lobster or a crab, in a baited trap, and isn’t dragged from the ocean floor or farmed under questionable conditions like so many of the other shrimp we eat.

That makes a spot prawn a truly sustainable seafood option, which feels good, even when you’re peeling a pot full and slurping up the juices from their tasty little heads.

Delicate and sweet, spot prawns are fragile once fished, so they’re delivered alive and kicking to west coast chefs just hours after they’re caught. Chefs in top restaurants across the country serve spot prawns, too — whether you’re dining at Rouge in Calgary or Canoe in Toronto.

But to really taste this perishable prawn fresh, as they do for just two months every spring in Vancouver, you must come to the source.

Ground zero is down on the docks at False Creek’s Fisherman’s Wharf, just opposite the Granville Island Market, where Steve Johansen and crew arrive every afternoon with their fresh catch of wriggling red specimens. When you get to Go Fish — the popular fish and chips stand — hang a right down the gangplank to Johansen’s big aluminum boat.

Johansen’s Organic Ocean is a seafood supplier to the local (culinary) stars and during the short, eight-week spot prawn season, he’s out on the water at 6 am every day, hauling up and emptying his 300 traps, resetting them in the deep waters of the Georgia Strait, and arriving at the public dock by early afternoon, with a pile of live, snappy spot prawns to sell to a hungry public and deliver to awaiting restaurants.

That’s how they get into the kitchen every day at Vancouver’s busy Coast restaurant, and at places like Yew in the Four Seasons Hotel, one of the many places in Vancouver and other west coast communities that offer special spot prawn menus during the season.

“The first year there were 400 people down here on the dock and this year there were thousands,” says Johansen, dumping a “bucket” of deep red prawns into a wire basket and hosing them down with sea water until they’re gleaming. With candy-cane tentacles and distinctive white spots, these prawns are pristine.

Try the fresh tomato gazpacho at Yew or spot prawn “corn dogs” with garlic aioli at the Loden Hotel. Look for chef Lee Humphries’ special spot prawn menu at C restaurant — $70 for courses from spot prawn bisque to peel-and-eat prawns with garlicky brown butter and preserved lemon — or have them raw in the sweet Ama ebi sashimi at Tojo’s Japanese restaurant.

With partner Frank Keitch and chefs like Robert Clark, Johansen helped bring the indigenous spot prawn — Pandalus platyceros — into our collective consciousness. And now instead of the entire catch heading off in container loads to Japan, celebrating spot prawn season is catching on across the country and Canadians are getting a chance to taste them.

Clean, fresh and sweet, this is the most amazing shrimp you’ll every taste. So there’s no time like the present for a prawn pilgrimage to the wonderful west coast.


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About the Author

Cinda Chavich
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