Food-wise, there are some combinations of words guaranteed to provoke a Pavlovian response (suitably salivatory) in me. Chilli chicken, cheese and wine, fat chips. Crusty bread, confit duck, white chocolate and raspberries. Crispy skin and honey cream – just to reel off a handful. One of the best is, however, garlic prawns.
Garlic prawns must be one of the more exemplary culinary inspirations, despite the simplicity. The Spaniards probably dreamt it up originally as a tapas. When I think of garlic prawns I think of a small cast- iron ramekin whose garlic- and chilli-flecked olive oil still bubbles, bath-like, around the plump sweet shellfish. My mother did a grand version decades ago: I recall chins shiny with oil, an obscene quantity of chopped garlic, and the need for rather too much soft white bread. Chef Jade Campbell-Scott of Byron Bay’s cafe one one one does an exceedingly impressive one. The Middleby pub in Mullumbimby, to my delight, actually has it as one of its Specialty dishes and a respectable interpretation at that, individual cast-iron pot and all. And yet inexplicably if you ask for garlic prawns at most establishments – and spending as much time as I do eating out at a democratic mix of high-end places, pubs, clubs and bistros I am keenly aware of this oddity – what you end up with is a serve of crustaceans swathed in cream and accompanied by a tidy mould of white rice. Presumably many people love it this way (or why would establishments persist?) but I find it almost a desecration, the cream masking the delicate sweetness of the prawn flavour and the rice an unconnected afterthought. Bread! That’s what you need, and lots of it!
Then again, at the Spanishly authentic Sir John Young Hotel in Sydney their version, which they call Sevillian Prawns, is prawns baked in garlicky tomatoes – which my friend Amanda extends divinely with crumbled fetta cheese. But if you wish to keep it pure and simple a recipe is almost not required. The key ingredients are olive oil, fresh deveined prawns leaving the tails on for glamour if you choose, lots of garlic thinly sliced rather than horribly crushed, fresh red chillies as an optional source of zing and zest and a heavy-based pan. Rather than cooking the garlic (and chilli) you are merely warming it through the oil in order to perfume the latter so the heat should be cautious, and generally a little over five minutes of infusion sufficient. Whack in the prawns and up the heat until they turn opaque to prettily pink and you can begin to smell that unbeatable fragrance – you can finish them off with a handful of freshly chopped parsley if you like, but really, there they are ready to go!
There is another version of garlic prawns offered in eateries which has been around for so long that I firmly believe people have ceased questioning its validity. I refer to the sturdy old institution of Surf’n’Turf, generally exemplified by a slab of stiff steak upon which roosts a flight of anxious prawns, often swaddled in cream or garlic or both. I braved this dish recently to check my reaction, not having dared order one for at least thirty years, and was comforted that it confirmed my long-held conviction that prawn, garlic or otherwise, and steak are simply not compatible.
My friend and colleague Eve shares my unbecoming adoration of not only cheese and chillies but also prawns, especially garlic prawns. Together we dipped into her little pot of them at the Middleby pub and together we delivered our semi-approving, semi-critical judgements as we politely pretended not to mind who would reach for the final prawn and last chunk of bread. Eve has this to say about prawns in general :
‘I could eat prawns every day and never tire of them. The only thing on the planet that is better than eating a beautifully cooked or prepared prawn, is eating two. I like them curried, on pizza, in Tom Yum Goong (the ‘goong’ is the prawn), garlicky and they are wonderful in tempura batter with a creamy Japanese mayo, barbecued or just steamed and sprinkled with lemon or dipped in tartare sauce. I think it has a lot to do with texture, there is something visceral about biting into that soft pink flesh then tearing it with your teeth…