“Don’t come the raw prawn with me, mate” is universally understood in Australia to mean “don’t try to fool me with something that’s not true”. According to Sydney J. Baker’s The Australian Language, the description of something hard to swallow as a “raw prawn” dates back to Australian forces fighting on the front line in World War II. He gives 1940 as the first recorded usage, with “don’t come the raw prawn” first recorded in 1942.
Prawns, raw or otherwise, have a legendary place in Australian food history. In 1984, actor Paul Hogan famously brandished a large prawn while telling Americans “We’ll slip another shrimp on the barbie for you.” Americans, you see, call prawns shrimp, hence the oxymoron “jumbo shrimp”. The commercial is credited with putting Australia near the top of Americans’ must-visit list after long languishing in twenty-somethingth place.
Of course, in Australia, we don’t eat shrimp. They are a different species and too small to be a worthwhile commercial catch. Australians have been eating prawns since at least the earliest colonial days (there is no record of first nations people eating them, although the fragility of the shells may simply mean that they weren’t preserved in middens). As early as 1827, Peter Miller Cunningham wrote in Two Years in New South Wales of the prawns to be found around Sydney’s bays.
By 1865, prawn fishing was common enough to be included in the first Act of Parliament to regulate fisheries in New South Wales. By the 1870s a small number of prawn fishermen were also making a living in Western Australia, Queensland and South Australia. By the early 20th century, prawning at night by the light of a hurricane lamp was a popular pastime in many estuaries.
In New South Wales, in particular, prawns became a popular fast food, hawked by roving sellers. Not everyone was happy. In the 1920s and ’30s, newspapers often carried letters to the editor complaining about the mess left behind or the impropriety of hawkers’ cries of “Fresh prawns” as upright citizens were on their way to church on Sundays. Some were happily munching their prawns in the cinema, to the distress of others in the audience.
From the late 1940s through to the early ’70s, the “prawn night” became a common way for Aussie blokes to get together – often at the bowling club or RSL. The prawns were, of course, accompanied by beer. So interrelated were the two that in 1948, when beer was in short supply, the sales of prawns plummeted. While not unknown in Western Australia, prawn nights seem to have been an essentially New South Welsh phenomenon, akin to Victoria’s pie nights.
It seems, though, that even Victorians embraced the idea of seafood, particularly prawns, for Christmas. In 1949, Australian National Airlines (later the now-defunct Ansett) reported flying 7000 lbs (3175 kg) of prawns to Melbourne from Newcastle in time for the festive season. Prawns remain a Christmas favourite. In 2021, traders at the Sydney Fish Market expected to sell some 200 tonnes of seafood during their 36-hour trading marathon leading up to the holiday season.
Large-scale prawn fishing ventures really got underway in Australia in the 1960s with commercial fisheries in New South Wales, Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory. In 1989, Ballina in northern New South Wales even erected the Big Prawn as a testament to the importance of the local industry. The town also hosts an annual prawn festival.
While wild-caught Australian prawns are still available, prawn farming began in the late 1980s. One of the first ventures was at Cardwell in North Queensland. The Australian industry claims to have the highest environmental standards of any in the world, which is why the local product commands a premium in supermarkets and fish shops.
As a Melbournian born and bred, I’m something of a stranger to the prawn tradition of our northern neighbours. I’ve never picnicked by the water on a parcel of prawns. I’ve never been to a prawn and beer event. I rarely cook them and don’t serve them for Christmas dinner. But I’m no doubt in the minority. Prawns are an integral part of Aussie culinary tradition, even if you’ve never actually slipped one on the barbie.