August 19, 2004
Ask the Chef: Deveining shrimp
A reader known only as "Strongbow" wants to know about deveining prawns (shrimp)
I had a query regarding cooking prawns and I hope you won't mind answering it. I live in Ireland and here we often buy prawns in the frozen state from the local Asian shop. Is it necessary to de-vein these before cooking. My wife seems to think that it's mandatory and spends like 40 minutes or so in de-veining these. My mom also told me at home that it is mandatory to devein prawns before cooking else you'll have indigestion. What's your take on this?
Your mum is partially right, Strongbow. Before I give you a "yes or no" answer, let me explain exactly what "deveining" means. The explanation may cause a bit of squirming, but it's necessary.
What most people call the "vein" on a prawn is actually the digestive tract of the darn thing. Yes, that's where all the grub goes once the prawn is done with it, much like our own intestines. It's usually seen as a thin black cord. Sometimes, when the shrimp hasn't fed too much, it may either be transparent or black only in spots. Since shrimps are dirt-feeders, there could be a lot of grit and sand in there. (I told you this might cause squirming.)
So should you devein all the shrimps? Well, it depends. For purely aesthetic reasons, the black cord looks ugly, so it's nice to remove them. I usually don't bother with deveining the small or tiny prawns that are used for fried rice and noodles. If you do, you could take a very long time to finish and be too tired to cook at the end of it. (Yes, I foolishly did this the first time I cooked prawns when I was about 15. I've since learnt my lesson.)
The medium-sized to large prawns (where medium is about 60 prawns per Kg.), however, can be deveined fast, so I recommend you do that. All you need is a small, sharp knife and a bowl of water. I'd tell you how to do it, but this is the Internet, so somebody already has. The bowl of water will help you clean the knife out quickly after each prawn is done. Just dip the knife into it and rinse.
If you don't devein the large prawns, you may get a sandy feel in your dish, which a lot of people don't enjoy. As for your mother's fear of indigestion, proper cooking will take care of that, so don't worry too much.
(Strongbow also wrote that he gets prawns that are frozen after the shells have been removed. These taste very close to rubber, being devoid of almost all texture and taste, so please buy only prawns that have been frozen in their shell. And if you think I'm being firm about it, you should listen to what Barbara Tropp has to say in The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking - a fine book indeed.)