Bite into a spot prawn and you’ll be greeted with a firm texture and a slightly sweet taste complemented with just a tang of salt. Wild spot prawns caught in British Columbia waters are both succulent and sustainable.
For years, BC spot prawns were somewhat of a secret, but not one the locals kept from outsiders; it was the other way around, with almost all of the catch being exported to Japan and the rest of Asia. Today, most of the harvest is still shipped overseas, but an ever-increasing share is consumed locally, to the delight of both resident BC foodies and tourists with discerning palates.
SPOT PRAWN FESTIVAL
The idea for the Spot Prawn Festival was cooked up by Chef Robert Clark and Steve Johansen of Organic Ocean as they took a fishing trip together. They knew the way to increase local consumption was to get the word out about these seafood delights to both chefs and the public. Just under a decade ago, the annual festival began with a few chefs boiling up a few pots of prawns; today, the event attracts thousands of people.
This year, the Spot Prawn Festival happened on May 13th. The day dawned a bit cloudy and showery, but cleared as I headed down to Fishermen’s Wharf, just west of Granville Island.
Part of the attraction is the opportunity to purchase prawns fresh off the boats as they dock. Demand is high, with people lining up well before the first ship was expected. As as the Organic Ocean boat hove into sight, sounding its horn to announce its arrival, the eager crowds mummered in excitement.
With the ship alongside the dock, the live spot prawns were offloaded into a large tray, wriggling like heaps of living treasure. Local buyers snapped up their purchases as fast as they could be bagged. Tempting as it was to buy some right away, I decided to wait. Spot Prawns are delicious, but they are also delicate. The key to enjoying them at their prime is to either eat or prepare them within a few hours of purchasing them from the boat. Check out the Wild BC Spot Prawns page for handling tips!
A TIP FOR LOCALS: If you want to buy spot prawns but don’t want to head home right after the festival, they’re also available fresh from the boats at Fishermen’s Wharf until the end of the season. The ships usually arrive sometime between 1 and 2pm, so enjoy the nautical ambiance and skyline views while you wait. The line-up decreases as the season goes on, with weekdays being less busy. In 2017, the cost was $20 a pound; sales are strictly cash, so leave your debit/credit cards in your wallet. The length of the season varies; to ensure a sustainable fishery, the population levels are closely monitored and the closing varied accordingly. Some years, the season is as short as three weeks; other years, it’s longer.
SPOT PRAWN BOIL
The festival events are free for everyone to enjoy, but if you want to sink your teeth into these seafood savouries, cooked by local chefs right at the wharf, you need to invest in a ticket. It’s money well spent, since you receive:
- A plate of three BC spot prawns along with side dishes from Grain, Windset Farms and Terra Breads.
- Samples of Raven Cream Ale from R&B Brewing, and wine from Evolve Cellars (only for those 19 or older).
- Mogiana Coffee samples
Ticket prices were $19.75. If you planned ahead, early bird tickets were $17.50 with taxes and a service fee additional.
My plate of food was gorgeous! I was glad I hadn’t eaten breakfast that morning.
You might have needed lessons as you ate your first lobster, but with spot prawns no schooling is required: just twist the head and gently squeeze the meat out of the bottom of the tail. You can also suck the remaining meat out of the head. They’re literally simply delicious. I slowly savored each bite, wanting each mouthful to last. The side dishes—cucumber salad, quinoa, fresh greens and a soft roll—were all chosen to complement the seafood; while each was tasty in its own way, none overpowered the prawns.
With the popularity of the boil, the Chefs’ Table Society of British Columbia has allotted time-slotted tickets to ensure turnover and minimize line-ups. After eating, we were able to enjoy samples of Mogiana coffee roasted in Vancouver, pick a wine sample from Evolve Cellars and a dark, creamy beer from R&B Brewing. Next, we took a digestive stroll along a variety of booths, learning more while listening to live music. A wide range of organizations were represented, including Sea Choice (advocating for accurate consumer information with their Label My Seafood plan), the Pacific Prawn Fishermen’s Association (working to keep the prawn fishery sustainable), the Vancouver Aquarium’s Ocean Wise program, Growing Chefs and Project Chefs.
Cooking demos by celeb chefs such as Isabel Chung of the Fairmont Chateau Whistler and Shelome Bouvette of Chica provided inspiration. As much as I love eating spot prawns raw or lightly boiled, I’ll be trying to up my cooking game with some of their recipes.
Which brings us to an important point about the main ingredient for all this fun and deliciousness: I want to enjoy seafood, but not at the expense of other creatures or our environment. BC spot prawns are recognized by the Vancouver Aquarium’s Ocean Wise as green and as a best choice by both the David Suzuki Foundation/Seachoice and the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch. (Spot prawns from the United States are not currently certifiably sustainable, since many US companies harvest prawns that are undersize or with eggs.)
I highly recommend The Spot Prawn Festival hosted by the Chefs’ Table Society of British Columbia, as an essential British Columbia experience. It’s a great way to enjoy a delicious meal seasoned with fresh salt air, while supporting local fishers and a sustainable source of seafood.
Now, to savour as many spot prawns before the season ends.
For more local food events, check out Chef meets Truck coming up on Tuesday, September 12 and Slow Fish dinner on Sunday October 15!