Digested Digest: The Prawn Prism – Christopher Kissane

Posted 9 months ago in Food & Drink Features

Where does our food come from? It is an ancient and natural question, even if our age of industrial agriculture, global supply chains, and corporate retail often alienates us from the answers. We normally think about it in physical terms: where and how was it grown? How did it get here? Who sold it to me? But the roots of our food go much deeper. Why we eat certain things, how we produce them, and their spread across the globe are all part of complex and fascinating histories. To truly consider the sources of our food, we need to think about time as well as space.

The past is booming across the food world. Restaurant menus and concepts are drawing on historic recipes; food TV programmes feature segments on historic dishes; and the news media can’t resist (often misleading) stories about what people used to eat. Focusing on the past, however, can come at the expense of thinking about history. Anecdotes attract our attention but limit our understanding when they ignore context. ‘Tradition’ preserves one past but flattens others by ignoring change. When our interest is only superficial we don’t notice that what seems old can often be much newer than we think, and that what is new is part of a much longer history that we are still living and eating.

So how can we think more historically about our food? Perhaps one way to start is to consider one of our oldest foods. Prawns (or shrimp) have been around for about 500 million years, and people have been eating them for thousands. All across the world the little crustaceans were part of bigger histories. For the ancient Greeks they could be a symbol of power (the best allegedly came from Iasos in modern-day Turkey, where prawns featured on the city’s coins). In medieval Europe they were a treat on the many ‘fast’ days when meat, dairy, and eggs were forbidden.

Many traditional shrimp recipes chart the spread of global imperialism, from the fascinating story of Mexican aguachile, to the ndolé of Cameroon (the country’s name itself taken from the Portuguese word for prawn), to Japanese ebi tempura (possibly inspired by Portuguese Jesuits). In the rise of the American Gulf’s shrimp canning industry we can see the history of industrial capitalism, from the exploitation of child labour for peeling prawns to class and racial conflicts over jobs and resources.

Here in Ireland, too, prawns have been caught and eaten for centuries, from Down to Dublin, Waterford to Cork, Galway to Kerry. In true Irish fashion, our most famous prawn is not actually a prawn at all, but a small lobster, the ‘langoustine’ or ‘Dublin Bay prawn’ (the name comes from the practice of secretly offloading them in the bay before boats reached harbour, in order to sell them on the sly). They are our most valuable seafood product, and we sadly export almost all that we catch, as we do our native Irish ‘common prawns’. Indeed, as Corinna Hardgrave wrote in The Irish Times in 2021, there is now very little chance of eating an Irish prawn in Ireland.

The destination for our prawns – as with most of our seafood – is southern Europe, where langoustines and other shellfish are loved and celebrated. But even there, our assumptions about what is ancient and traditional can be misleading. The famed ancient Roman gourmand Apicius supposedly sought out the largest prawns off the coast of Libya (and was unimpressed), but the iconic status of the Mediterranean red prawns – like those of Mazara del Vallo and Palamós – comes only from recent decades, after fishermen began deep trawling for them in the mid-twentieth century. As demand for prawns soared, massive fraud and overfishing became a concern for many of the most noted prawn fishing grounds (something that some fishermen are now trying to use a combination of science and traditional knowledge to address).

Indeed the last few decades have seen a radical revolution. Prawns are now the most widely eaten seafood, primarily farmed prawns from southeast Asia. Traditionally, prawns could only be farmed on a small scale by trapping the young and keeping them in ponds or paddies outside of rice growing season. But in less than half a century, technical and biological advances have led to a huge boom in industrial farming, where prawns are bred in hatcheries and grown in extensive ponds. The farmed produce of two species – king (or whiteleg) and tiger – now dominate our ever-growing appetite for prawns. But up to a third of those sold may be mislabelled as part of endemic fraud, alongside widespread chemical use to increase saleability. We are eating something very different from the prawns of the past.

Such radical change has come with great costs. The conditions for those working in the industry are notoriously bad. The authors of a new book on the human hunger that feeds southeast Asia’s fish farming industries quote a Filipino fisher’s observation that “…the shrimp live better than we do. The shrimp have electricity, but we don’t. The shrimp have clean water, but we don’t. The shrimp have lots of food, but we are hungry”. The conditions in prawn processing plants, and for those working on boats catching fish to produce feed for prawn farms, have long been compared to modern slavery.

The environmental costs are also catastrophically high. The industry has often been devastated by rampant disease, leading to the reckless use of antibiotics. Converting more and more coastal land to prawn plantations has dangerously damaged coastal ecosystems; some scientists even estimate that a kilo of farmed prawns creates more CO2 emissions than a kilo of beef. Some are asking if artificial shrimp (or ‘alt-shrimp’) are the answer, while it’s even possible that climate change will make our prawns less tasty. Animal rights activists also emphasise increasing evidence that prawns are sentient and that industrial aquaculture pays no attention to their welfare.

Prawn politics extends far beyond farms. FT investigative journalist Antonia Cundy recently revealed how much prawn fishing in the Irish Sea is done by exploited Filipino migrants, while Ella McSweeney and colleagues in The Guardian have previously exposed how migrants are exploited on Irish Atlantic boats fishing for prawns. In the same waters where Roman gourmands once followed the most sought-after prawns, the fishermen of Mazara del Vallo are caught in a ‘red prawn war’ exacerbated by Europe’s efforts to stop migrants crossing the Mediterranean, a policy leading to an endless stream of deaths.

Like so many foods, prawns can be a prism for looking at past and present, a reminder that when we cook and eat we are part of something much bigger than what happens in our kitchens and at our tables. When thinking about the past, we do not need to abstain from the quirky stories and local legends; indeed they are an essential and engaging part of enjoying and sharing the joy of food. But they are only one of the ingredients for food history. To interrogate and understand where our food comes from, we also have to confront deeper, more difficult questions.

Christopher Kissane is a historian, writer and reviewer. Christopher is a guest contributor to the Ómós Digest Newsletter where this article originally appeared.


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