If you’re anything like me, you think of Valencia as soon as anyone says “paella” – that birthplace of the original Spanish rice dish (made with snails and rabbit) and stomping ground of travel writing foodies. Valencia is truly a beautiful city with delicious food and wonderful personality, but that’s not where I had my seafood paella experience. I was in Seville, studying abroad and enjoying the opportunity to stay with a host family to help me learn the finer points of European Spanish – the vosotros form and what we’ll call vernacular (what they don’t teach you in school).
About halfway through my month-long stay in Seville, my host mother announced that she was having a good friend over that Friday and wanted to make a big lunch to celebrate. I was excited about this because my experience in Spanish cuisine thus far had been steamed cauliflower, bread, fruit, and more bread. Yes, I was certainly looking forward to the promised celebratory lunch.
That Friday, I arrived home from class in time to help my host mother with some of the preparations before eating and heading back for more classes. What I hadn’t realized was that she was making paella, something I had only read about on menus and dreamed of with a stomach full of cauliflower. She asked me to make the topping for the mussels she was using to decorate the huge pot of paella, so I chopped tomato, onions, and herbs to create a salsa of sorts. After adding some lemon juice, I spread it on top of the mussels in their half shells – I was probably drooling by this time. I had never tasted mussels, but I was excited at the prospect. And then I saw the other seafood ingredient, already sitting on top of the paella and mixed in with the vegetables, too: prawns. Their shriveled eyeballs scared me, but I was determined to enjoy this paella.
A Prawn Anatomy Lesson
I knew next to nothing about prawns. They looked like shrimp on growth hormones, or maybe steroids, but I wasn’t about to ask about them. I chose to simply observe the others at the lunch table to see how they would deal with the sea monsters. The mussels were served as appetizers, and I was encouraged by their incredible flavor – I figured that my second seafood introduction would be equally delightful. Taking my cues from the others, I began to eat my paella and found it so delicious that I became a little careless and simply ate around the prawns to enjoy what I could. This mistake resulted in the consumption of one prawn eyeball, which had somehow come loose and hidden itself in the rice and vegetables. I was slightly horrified, but I knew it couldn’t hurt me and that I should just ignore it. However, I was now intent on figuring out how to peel and eat those prawns so that their more undesirable parts wouldn’t end up on my fork.
I tried to watch surreptitiously, but I probably stared. I was under the impression that touching one’s food at the table (especially at a celebratory lunch) was rude beyond description. While that was true for my family in my country, it was pretty far from the reality of Seville. Everyone was picking up their prawns, peeling them, discarding the heads and shells on their appetizer plates, and eating them, all while keeping up the conversation. I knew I couldn’t do that, even if it was appropriate, so I tried to transfer my prawns to my appetizer plate and dissect them there using my knife and fork. As I probably could have anticipated, this only drew strange looks from the others, so I returned the prawns to my bowl and tried to eat around them again. By now, I was paranoid and combing for eyeballs, trying to make small talk in a language I was still trying to learn. Fortunately, I had a glass of wine to get me through the lunch and the rest of my classes, but containing my embarrassment and discomfort was a pretty extreme effort.
The paella was delicious and I was eager to try my hand at making it once I got back to the States, but the prawns had defeated me. So my next order of business was to convince some native speakers to go out for prawns and teach me how to eat them properly. Here is what I learned.
When in Spain
I became the butt of a few jokes, but it was worth it to learn how to eat prawns from Spanish experts. So the next time you’re faced with the challenge of eating prawns in a group of new acquaintances, you’ll be able to focus on the conversation rather than the shriveled eyeballs.
1. Grab a prawn in one hand, putting your thumb and forefinger just behind its head and making sure that the legs are facing downwards. Take hold of the head with your other hand, using your thumb and forefinger, and snap it sharply downwards, ideally pulling the legs off in the same motion.
2. If you didn’t get the legs with the head, use the same downward snapping motion to peel them all off.
3. Sneak your thumb underneath the shell by pushing up from where the legs were. You should be able to lift and twist the shell off, including the tail.
4. Yes, I left the tail on mine, too. In this case, pinch the base of the tail to force the rest of the meat out and get rid of the tail.
5. If you’re picky, pinch the top of the vein that runs the length of the prawn and pull it out. I was picky, but they swear it enhances the flavor of the prawn, so you might want to leave it in.
6. Simply eat your prawn, or if it’s part of a dish like paella, you can put it back in the bowl and cut it into smaller pieces to be enjoyed with the rest of the dish.
Lisa Shoreland is currently a resident blogger at Go College, where recently she’s been researching education
grants and blogging about student life. In her spare time, she enjoys creative writing and hogging her boyfriend’s PlayStation 3. To keep her sanity she enjoys practicing martial arts and bringing home abandoned animals.