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Hungry Magazine - All Things Tasty
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06.20.07

Big Shrimpin

Food History


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In the 1500s, the largely Catholic Portuguese were sailing about and claiming large parts of the world for king and country. While away from home, many of them still observed the holidays and fast days of their religion. Four times a year, they celebrated Ember days, fast days when they were not allowed to eat meat. During these particular holidays (known as quatuor tempora or “four seasons”), a favorite dish was battered and fried shrimp. Japan did not have a lot of fried foods at the time the Portuguese arrived, and the Japanese were intrigued by these fried shrimps and adopted the technique of preparing foods this way. And, it is reasonably argued, this (the eating of fried shrimp during the quatuor tempora) is the most likely origin of both the Japanese cooking method and word tempura.

This is not the only Portuguese shrimp-related etymology, however. As the Portuguese explored the coastline of West Africa, they came upon an area that was teeming with large, tasty shrimp. They named it the Rio dos Camarões, or Shrimp River. In time, the name evolved and was adopted by the country through which the river flows—Cameroon—the only country I can think of named for a crustacean.

“Shrimp” is a term that pretty much encompasses the entire order Decapoda (ten-legged crustaceans), with the exception of lobsters, crabs, and crayfish. Included under the heading of “shrimp” are prawns, which some believe to mean large shrimp, others believe to mean freshwater shrimp, and still others believe to simply mean someone British is talking about shrimp.

There are thousands of types of shrimp, though only about 300 species are fished commercially. Shrimp come in a wide range of colors: pink, brown, white, red, green, gray, and blue, plain or with spots,or a wide variety of stripes, as well. There are some pretty strangely shaped shrimps, too, and some with peculiar abilities. Take for example the pistol shrimp, which lives in shallow, tropical seas. One claw of this finger-size shrimp is exceptionally large. Part of this claw can be cocked, a bit like a pistol, and when it is snapped shut, the resulting sound waves kill or stun nearby prey. The snapping produces a sharp cracking sound. When colonies of the shrimp snap their claws, the noise is so intense that submarines can take advantage of it to hide from sonar. (If you don’t believe me, check out this video )

But size is the difference that matters most to fishermen and consumers. Some freshwater monsters can weigh three to four pounds, while some species border on being microscopic. (Generally speaking, the colder the water, the smaller the shrimp.) However, most commercial fisheries lose interest if shrimp are much smaller than 150 to the pound.

Shrimps are found pretty much everywhere, in shallow water and deep, in fresh water and salt, in warm water and cold—even in puddles in the Sahara. Like most other things that are abundant and easily caught, shrimp have been eaten since prehistoric times. The ancient Greeks preferred shrimp to lobster, cooking large shrimp wrapped in fig leaves. The Romans used shrimp in their best fish sauce. The Roman gourmet and cookbook writer, Apicius, once chartered a boat to follow up on a report of particularly tasty shrimps.

As civilization spread, it left coastal lands behind. Hence, though the ancients wrote often and lovingly of shrimp, we hear almost nothing of crustaceans of any sort during the Middle Ages. Shrimp just weren’t making it inland—at least not in Europe. Shrimp are extremely perishable. They die when taken out of the water and decay quickly once dead, so you needed to be near water to eat them fresh. But if the sun was hot enough, you could dry them—though only the Chinese seemed to hit upon this idea. The dried shrimps were “shelf stable” and could be transported to markets not at the water’s edge. The development of this technique led to the founding of an unusual village in, of all places, Louisiana.

The Chinese method of drying shrimp was brought to the U.S. in 1873 by Lee Yuen, who moved to Louisiana from Guangzhou. He created shrimp-drying platforms, which were built on piles so that they were perched just above the water. His business was so profitable that he was soon joined by others from Guangzhou, and the platforms grew into a village that became known as Chinamen’s Platform. In 1895, a group of Filipinos arrived and joined the work. Also building platforms on piles or “stilts” driven into the mud, they created a community that covered more than fifty acres. They named it Manila Village, and it became one of the region’s largest shrimping villages. The dried shrimp from Manila Village was sold all over the world. But then refrigeration came along, and the market for dried shrimp, well, dried up. The demise of the village led to the Filipino community integrating into New Orleans society, and today, the only reminder of this once thriving community is the pilings that can sometimes still be seen along the coast.

Thankfully for those of us inland who like fresh shrimp, the U.S. developed the technology that made it possible to speed this delicate creature to distant markets. And it makes sense that it should be the U.S. that would develop this, because even though shrimp are popular and abundant worldwide, the richest shrimp fisheries in the world are in the Gulf of Mexico.

But the U.S. isn’t just the largest producer of shrimp; it is also the largest consumer. Americans love shrimp, downing hundreds of millions of pounds a year. However, there are a few places that give us a run for our money; China, Japan, Denmark, and the west coast of France are all fans. And while the U.S. still has the richest natural shrimp fisheries, shrimp are now farmed in huge operations in Ecuador, Thailand, and Hong Kong.

But enough statistics and factoids. Let’s eat.

The first time I had shrimp de Jonghe, many long years ago, I believed that it was some exotic European creation. In time, I learned that it was, in fact, invented at the De Jonghe Hotel and Restaurant in Chicago in the late 1800s. So this is a slice of local food history. It is a rich, gorgeously flavorful dish that is surprisingly easy to prepare. Enjoy.

Shrimp de Jonghe

1-1/4 lb. uncooked shrimp, peeled and deveined
10 Tbs. butter
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 Tbs. shallots, finely chopped
1/2 tsp. salt
2 Tbs. dry sherry
1 or 2 dashes hot pepper sauce or cayenne pepper
1/2 cup fine bread crumbs
1/4 cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F, checking first to make sure one of the shelves is in the center.

Butter a shallow, 1-quart baking dish—or, if you have them, several individual-sized baking dishes.

Blanch the shrimp in boiling water for 30 seconds, then drain them in a colander. Run them under cold water until cool (to stop cooking).

Soften the butter with a fork. Beat in the garlic, shallots, and salt. When thoroughly blended, add the remaining ingredients (except the shrimp) and blend well. (If you make a large amount of this—say double or triple the recipe—you could do all this in a food processor.)

If the shrimp have not dried sufficiently in the colander, pat dry. Then, arrange the shrimp in a single layer in the baking dish or dishes. Dot/spread the butter-and-crumb mixture over the shrimp, making sure that all shrimp have at least some of the mixture on it. Bake until shrimp are fully cooked and the topping has become lightly brown, about 15 minutes. Serves 4 as a main course or 6 to 8 as an appetizer.

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