Cooking Live Prawns: Hold Onto Your Heads and Tails!

Cooked prawns in a pot with saffron rice and vegetables. Photo by Cecilia Kennedy

Plunging live prawns into boiling water is a real scream. I’m not kidding. I screamed real loud as the feisty crustaceans lashed at my fingers with their really sharp antennae. Sometimes very hot water went everywhere. It was wild—a scene from a horror movie. And I’ll never do it again—except, they sure were tasty! However, I can finally cross this activity off my Washington state bucket list. Ever since we moved here almost a year ago, my family and I would dreamily watch the large crustacean tanks in Central Market with fascination. In the early summer, there are shrimp and crabs. It’s now late summer so plump, juicy spot prawns float and prance about those tanks in tempting, tempting ways.   What makes them even more tempting to me is the fact that they are local prawns. Elliott at the seafood counter in Mill Creek, Washington’s Central Market store, tells me these prawns were caught off the coast of Washington near the Washington-Oregon border. He also has plenty of great tips for Nate and Alex, who pick up the prawns at the store and bring them back to the kitchen:

1) Cook them in heavily salted water for about ten minutes.

2) Prawns will stay fresh for about six hours. After that, it’s best to refrigerate them or freeze them to keep them fresh until cooking.

3) Cook them with the heads on. The heads have a lot of flavor.

Live prawns in a tank at Central Market in Mill Creek, WA. Photo by Nathan Kennedy

Spot prawns, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, live in areas ranging from southern California all the way up to Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. They can reach a maximum length of 12 inches and live up to eleven years. They are hermaphrodites, so they begin their lives as males and then become females. According to the Marine Education Society of Australia (MESA), the females don’t “brood” their eggs. Instead, they release them into the water. Prawns and shrimp are relatively healthy to eat, though many experts recommend limiting these foods because of elevated amounts of cholesterol. Yet, prawns and shrimp are considered a good source of lean protein. A Tufts University Health and Nutrition Newsletter states that three ounces of raw shrimp contain 12 grams of protein. Berkeley Wellness at the University of California also lists many health benefits and food safety tips for handling and eating all kinds of seafood, including shrimp.

To get the most out of a prawn or shrimp eating experience, don’t toss the ugly shrimp or prawn heads away. Suck their brains out. Nikki Bayley, in the article titled, “Ten Things you Need to Know about Spot Prawns,” which appeared in 2014 in Eater Vancouver, enthusiastically recommends the following: “if you’re at a restaurant and get the head of a prawn, slurp the juice out of it like a prawn pro.” So, how does one “slurp the juice like a pro?” Years ago, I did a three-month-long study abroad program in Salamanca, Spain. The family with whom I stayed made paella almost every day and put plenty of head-on shrimp into the rich saffron rice mix. In Spanish, the family members instructed me on how to suck out the brains of the shrimp. There is a very, very specific method and I never got it completely right. However, I got it “right” enough to enjoy the salty sweet flavor of shrimp brains. (If that makes me some sort of shrimp zombie, I don’t care.) I’ve tried to find a video that expertly shows the Spanish method I learned from my host family. This YouTube video from MuchoHop is the closest I can find. About four minutes in, there is a quick lesson on eating a langostino or prawn. (Langostino can also mean lobster in Spanish, but in this case, the langostino in the video is most definitely a prawn.)

The prawns, simply prepared in boiling salt water are absolutely delicious, but I certainly needed to serve them with something else, since Nate and Alex lift weights, swim, and hike on a regular basis. They burn calories like crazy. So, I prepared a saffron rice dish that I hesitate to call paella. I didn’t follow any kind of recipe or methodology, so I don’t think my dish is worthy of being called anything authentic or “Spanish,” but it tasted delicious. I also served it with a healthy salad made of many of the vegetables that are in season now in the state of Washington. Here’s what I did:

1) Prepared the salad:

Three salad bowls filled with golden beets, spinach, multi-colored carrot strips, sliced fennel, and different colors of cherry tomatoes.


–1/2 cup finely sliced carrots in a variety of fall colors.

–3 medium-sized golden beets that have been washed, boiled in salted water for 20 minutes, cooled under cold water, peeled, and sliced.

–1 ½ cups of fresh spinach

–1/2 fennel bulb thinly sliced

–1/2 cup sliced cherry tomatoes in a variety of colors.

(Arrange all ingredients attractively in individual bowls.)


½ cup orange juice

1 teaspoon cumin

½ teaspoon garlic powder

½ teaspoon sea salt

½ teaspoon ground black pepper

1-2 teaspoons of olive oil

(Whisk all ingredients and drizzle onto the salads just before serving.)

2) Prepared the rice:

Finished rice and vegetable mixture.  (This recipe can be made vegetarian by following these steps and using vegetable broth instead of chicken broth.)


–1/2 bag of mini, multicolored sweet peppers—sliced into rings and chopped

–1/2 medium onion finely chopped

–1 teaspoon chopped garlic

–1 tablespoon olive oil

–1 medium tomato chopped

–1 ½ cups medium grain rice

–pinch of saffron

–2 cups chicken broth

–salt to taste


–Heat the olive oil on medium heat in a medium-sized pan.

–Add the garlic, peppers, and onion.

–Let cook for about 5-10 minutes.

–Add the rice and the saffron. Stir and cook for a few minutes.

–Add the chicken broth and tomatoes. Salt to taste. Let the mixture come to a boil.

–Cook with the lid on, at reduced heat (low) for 20 minutes.

–After 20 minutes, remove the pot from the heat and let the mixture rest for at least ten minutes or more. (Leave the lid on.)

3) Prepared some chicken breasts because Nate and Alex love their protein!


–2-3 chicken breasts (boneless, skinless).

–salt and pepper to taste (I like sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.)

–a few threads of saffron

–2 teaspoons of chopped garlic


–Preheat the oven to 450.

–Rub the chicken breasts with salt, pepper, and saffron.

–Bake for 8-10 minutes, depending on how thick the breasts are. If they are quite thick, it could take 20 minutes or more.

4) Prepared the prawns:

–1 pound of shell on live prawns

–a large pot filled with water

–lots of salt—I probably used about a ¼ cup for a medium-sized pan. I really needed a bigger pot!


–Do not let the prawns sit out for very long. According to Wild BC Spot Prawns, an organization by the executive director of the Pacific Prawn Fisherman Association Steven Richards, prawns can’t be left out for more than a few hours. If they are not going to be cooked immediately, the heads must come off.

–Get the water boiling hot.

–Muster up all the courage you have in order to wrangle the prawns into the boiling water. Keep pets and small children out of the kitchen. Try not to scream too much.

–The Wild BC Spot Prawns site says to only cook them 1-2 minutes. When their tails curl up, they turn pink, and they float, they’re probably done. Just for safe measure, we left them in 5-6 minutes. They were still tender and delicious.

5) Put it all together:

–Cut up the chicken and add it to the rice.

–Top each portion with prawns.

–Serve with fresh lemon wedges.

–Slurp brains, get rice everywhere, and discuss the gel-like orange bits that no one seems to mention.   (Yes, I ate them. We all ate them. They were delicious.)

You Turn: What’s on your “bucket list” to cook?










21 thoughts on “Cooking Live Prawns: Hold Onto Your Heads and Tails!

  1. YUM!! I wish live prawns were a thing here. When I lived in New Orleans, I totally took them for granted! Took Pike’s Place for granted, too, when we lived in Seattle.

    No that I live in the Frozen Tundra, we can get lake Perch, but that’s about it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Good for you – and thanks for sharing the pictures and the recipes. Cooking for myself alone now (with walking my puppy and a bit of yoga my primary exercise), I’ll have to cut waaay down on the ingredients, but your “fake paella” sounds delish to me and I can’t wait to try it, along with your dressing for that gorgeous salad. Can I come eat at YOUR house? (no worries, I’m on the other side of the country – lol)
    (Madelyn Griffith-Haynie – ADDandSoMuchMORE dot com)
    ADD/EFD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching co-founder
    “It takes a village to educate a world!”


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