To Die For: giant freshwater prawns
The place The Maine Avenue Fish Market – down at the District’s southwest waterfront – has added a much needed seating area adjacent to its floating stalls. No longer do customers have to hurry home with their perishable purchases or find an alternate place to picnic – now you can eat freshly shucked oysters or crabs steamed just for you right there on the water. This is a good sign: the ongoing redevelopment of the waterfront (it’s just down the street from Nationals stadium) is slated to extend all the way to the end of Maine Avenue, and the fate of the open air fish market has been uncertain. Presumably the investment in the seating area is an indication that the market will stay – or is designed to build popular support for it. Either way, it seems that the vendors have a shot at prevailing once again.
The Maine Avenue market is the oldest continuously operating fish market in the United States, but its identity has changed over time. Originally housed in a 19th century building near the current location, the vendors resisted an earlier urban renewal project in the 1960s, and although the building was razed, an open air market was built within a few blocks to allow them to stay on. That’s when the floating barges were introduced. They are a tribute to the original system of shipping fish up the Virginia coast to the market on the same boats on which they were caught. But they are onIy a tribute: by the 1960s, refrigerated trucking had become a more efficient way of delivering seafood, and with it came the ability to offer a wider selection than the local catch. Not long after, refrigerated trucking was followed by refrigerated air freight and access to markets around the globe. So, although the Maine Avenue market is firmly anchored in local history, the seafood on offer is not necessarily freshly caught in nearby waters.
The pleasure At Jessie Taylor Seafood, one of the vendors at the market, I discovered the beauteous giant freshwater shrimp, and immediately thought of them as a vehicle for prawns peri-peri. For those of you who read my Nando’s post, you know how much I love chicken peri-peri, and I hold prawns peri-peri in similar, mind-blowing, esteem. In South Africa, the dish is ideally made with the regionally renowned Mozambique prawns, also known as L.M. prawns after the former colonial capital, Lourenço Marques. (Marques was a 16th century Portuguese explorer). What gave me the idea to substitute the giant freshwater shrimp for Mozambique prawns – despite the fact that the latter are marine rather than river creatures – was that in both cases their sheer size suggests lobster or langoustine more than anything else. Jessie had already removed the heads and deveined them, though the shell had been left on. This was good, because as I remembered it, peri peri prawns are cooked in the shell. At home with Jessie’s giant shrimp – 3 per person seemed more than enough -- I set about preparing them the way my father used to: pan-fried in peri-peri oil (turned red from having had chili peppers steeped in it) and served over rice. Okay, so I did add a few touches of my own. I seasoned with Nando’s peri-peri spice rub and added some white wine to deglaze the pan right at the end. I was thrilled with the result: the fiery flavor was just as I remembered it, and the fresh sweetness of the lobster-like mollusk was a heavenly vehicle. I even scarfed up the rice, which in most other dishes remains ignored on my plate. More complicated recipes for prawns peri-peri do exist, for example this one offered by the South African food festival in Richmond; it’s up to you how much time and effort you are in the mood for putting in.
The peril This is where it gets more complicated. Once I had gotten past the delight of reconnecting with a childhood favorite, I decided to dig a little into the provenance of the giant shrimp. I had never really thought much about where shrimp came from but something about the exotic size of these made me want to know more about them. It turns out that the vast majority of shrimp consumed in the U.S. are imported from South and Southeast Asia and Latin America, and the vendor at Jessie Taylor (in the picture above) identified their source as Indonesia and Bangladesh. Researching these shrimp on the net, red flags jumped out all over the place: the shrimp farms constructed in Asia to feed global (especially U.S.) demand are reported to destroy mangrove forests and other coastal wetlands. But there seems to be a differing of opinion: the FAO maintains that freshwater shrimp farms do not endanger mangroves, and in general have less ecological impact, including fewer problems with salination. The Environmental Defense Fund, by contrast, does not distinguish the freshwater variety from other imported shrimp and steers consumers instead towards the small domestic industry (mostly in Oregon and Canada) which has stricter environmental standards and qualifies as their “eco-best” choice. Still, improvements have been happening abroad as well, and in the end it all comes down to the specific supply chains. In this sense, Jessie Taylor Seafood and other vendors at the Maine Avenue Fish Market are no different from other area vendors in terms of the standards they apply when selecting suppliers. Greenpeace has prepared a scorecard that rates the standards used by D.C. supermarkets. None rates higher than 6 on a scale of 1-10. And you may be surprised by who the leader is!
Photo credits: Chris Svoboda