The Nasty Bits: Mantis Shrimp
"It was, by far, the most delicious of the squirmy creatures I've encountered at the markets here."
I wake up early in the morning and walk to the markets in Flushing to see what's fresh each day. The choices are constantly changing, especially at the fruit stands and the fishmonger's. As the weather cools down the abundance of lychees and longans give way to persimmons and pomelos; wooden baskets brimming with blue claw crabs are kept by the fish tanks. This morning, I saw soft shell crabs stacked neatly in a shallow cardboard box; next to it there was a bin full of less-familiar beauties: large, live, flailing and squirming prawn-like creatures.
I lowered my head down to get a whiff of that sweet, oceanic smell and instead suffered a slap on the face from one of the prawns, its propeller-like tail curling upwards in shrimpy indignation. That settled matters; a few minutes later I walked back to my apartment with a pound of the jumping specimens in my shopping bag.
The fish department is the only place in a market where you're likely to find strange animals that are still alive. Things at the meat counter have already bit the dust, and even when you do find a more interesting animal offering, such as the frozen armadillo I once came across next to a box of pig ears, who really has the time to wait for an armadillo to defrost? Strange creatures at the fishmongers, on the other hand, are just begging to be eaten: there are gorgeous bivalves in an array of colors and sizes, hairy crabs, tiny Long Island crabs, spotted frogs, and razor clams the length and width of a medium-sized carrot. I could eat a different strange animal every week from the fishmonger's, and still not exhaust all my options.
Shrimp, prawn, or neither? The differences are sometimes minute: both shrimp and prawns are delicious; both taste, uh, shrimp-like. According to Wikipedia, prawns have "sequentially overlapping body segments"—that is to say, segment one covers segment two, segment two covers segment three, and so forth. In shrimp, on the other hand, segment two covers both segments one and three. I checked the carapace of my dinner and found that the body segments were indeed sequentially overlapping. And yet, the squareness of their heads suggested that they were neither shrimp nor prawns, but another type of crustacean altogether.
In fact, they were mantis shrimp, a marine crustacean named for its resemblance to the praying mantis. Mantis shrimp show up as a sushi topping, are boiled whole, and eaten out of the shell, and appear in various Mediterranean cuisines (in Italy, they are Canocchie).
I tossed a couple of the suckers into a pot of boiling water. Though tempted to eat the whole pound straight out the pot, I made use of the majority of the lightly boiled meat for a risotto-inspired rice dish, using the shells to make a quick broth in which to simmer my grains of rice. The meat was intensely sweet, like lobster, only even more tender than the tenderest of tiny chicken lobsters. It was, by far, the most delicious of the squirmy creatures I've encountered at the Flushing markets.
If you can get your hands on some mantis shrimp, treat them as you would prawns, shrimp, langoustines, and so forth: use in bouillabaisse, risotto, pasta, and paella. Or, just boil and enjoy.