'I wiped away the weed and foam I fetched my sea-born treasures home; But the poor, unsightly, noisome things Had left their beauty on the shore, With the sun and the sand and the wild uproar' ----Ralph Waldo Emerson
Once upon a time, only the few who luckily lived by the sea, rivers or bayous could capture and savor the freshness of those 10-legged crustaceans called shrimp. Throughout years of changing tides and seasons the crustaceans stayed and multiplied, and now, all around the globe, there are about 300 species of them. Thanks to the persistent efforts of dedicated shrimpers, from the lowly trawlers in little coastal villages to big-time commercial operators with high-tech tools and processing equipment, the distinctive delicate taste of this shellfish is conveniently available to inland residents and shore dwellers alike.
I well remember from my youth in the Philippines the delight of picking live, moving shrimp that were peddled in huge worn-out bamboo baskets along the shores of Manila Bay. The catch would come in all sizes, from small wiggly ones to mammoth-size prawns called sugpo. I cherish the memory of those sweet and succulent delicacies, which as soon as we got home, then a stone's throw away from the shore, we would simply saute whole in their shells just until they turned a bright red.
A recent seafood buying spree let me rediscover sugpo, shell and head intact, frozen in an icy block imported all the way from the islands. Flash-freezing techniques, minutes after the shrimp are netted, now make it possible to lock in the seafood's fresh quality. Today, most shrimp sold in fish markets in the United States are frozen and sold either still frozen or thawed.
Tremendous imports of wild and cultured shrimp from foreign coasts are helping the declining supply of domestic shrimp to meet the ever-increasing demand in the United States. The leading foreign supplier of tropical or warm-water headless shrimp is Mexico, followed by Ecuador with its vast aquaculture ponds where seafood is raised and bred in controlled environments. Third in volume is India, which ironically ranks No. 1 in global shrimp import. For green shrimp with the head still on, a number of Asian countries and Australia contribute to the local supply. Composing the rest of the global catch, about 12%, cold-water or Northern shrimp are mainly supplied in this country by Norway.
"'The huge im port supply and improved shrimp farming are making shrimp a relatively better value," according to Ernest Doizaki, president of American Fish & Seafood Co. Import varieties have made it possible to please every shrimp buyer. "People have different taste patterns," Doizaki said. "Americans favor the white shrimp (shell is grayish-white) from Mexico, which is the crisper, more bland type, whereas Japanese people like the brown shrimp (shell is reddish-brown), which actually has a slight iodine flavor."
Color also plays a role. "Restaurants that like to serve bright red shrimp for cocktails select the large tiger shrimp, which comes from Taiwan," Doizaki added.
Still 11 times lower in consumption than beef and five times lower than poultry, seafood consumption in the United States has held at about 13 pounds per person annually. There's still a great need for educating consumers on the health benefits of eating low-calorie seafood such as shrimp.
Interestingly, about 80% of the shrimp supply goes to restaurateurs. An article in the winter issue of Seafood Leader, an industry trade publication, shows who gets what price for shrimp. For instance, the shrimper gets $5.50 per pound for shrimp (16 to 20 pieces), the processor gets $6.60, the wholesaler passes it on for $7.60 to the retailer and restaurateur. The consumer buys it for $9.95 per pound at the market and pays up to a whopping $36 per pound in a restaurant. "Consumers haven't fully realized they're still getting greater value buying and cooking the shrimp themselves than going to a restaurant," Doizaki said.
There's also a need to teach cooking methods, including how to treat each shrimp differently to bring out the best overall flavor. Absolutely fresh shrimp require no seasonings other than salt or melted butter, whereas those on the blander side may be accented with garlic and other seasonings and used for stews, bouillabaisse, etc.