Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Shrimp ... the Real Chicken of the Sea

A few weeks ago I met with DPC and JH at Bouley Bakery (corner of Duane and West Broadway in Tribeca) for coffee and - since what’s coffee without a pastry - ended up sharing some really amazing peanut butter cookies. We met to talk about the Dining column and so of course the topic turned to food. Its surprising how bonding a peanut butter cookie can be because before long we were all divulging information on our very personal eating habits - what we like to eat, where we like to eat it, we even opened up about our issues with portion control and our preferences on dinner companions.

And then I said something that was so controversial to DPC that he's still quoting me on it – be careful when eating shrimp. His eyes lit up. What are you talking about? I eat shrimp all the time! And I’m sure he does, as it’s not only very popular at cocktail parties, it’s also the most consumed fish or shellfish in the US and its popularity keeps rising.

Why the rise? My theory is that most people believe that if food comes from the ocean it has got to be good for them. (I also think chefs have realized that shrimp is a sexy version of chicken - a benign blank canvas with which anything can be served.)

But what’s the problem? The problem is that all shrimp have not swum in the ocean – most are farm raised. This means that they since they are larvae, shrimp are placed in pools and confined for months until they are large enough to be sold. And just like conventional chickens, they are given antibiotics to ward off disease before they are taken away as tasteless versions of themselves (again, just like chickens their flavor is muted by the lack of exposure to their natural habitat).

And it gets worse ... 90% of shrimp sold in the US come from Southeast Asia or Latin America where environmental regulations leave much to be desired. The issue is so hot that even Wal-Mart announced this year that they would only buy their yearly 50 million pounds of shrimp from farms that are certified as environmentally sound by the Global Aquaculture Alliance or the Aquaculture Certification Council.

So short of kissing your shrimp cocktail goodbye what is one to do? Look for wild or domestic shrimp. If shopping, markets will usually list the country of origin next to their seafood. But if you’re eating out or at a party ... you’re pretty much on your own. However, just like restaurants advertise free-range chickens they are starting to do the same with seafood…ever seen “line caught” or “wild” on a menu? I’m sure you’ll start paying attention.

— Lourdes Castro