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I recently hosted a dinner party for friends and served grilled, head-on prawns, an item I had seen popping up on menus throughout Chicago. Upon serving these sriracha marinated crustaceans to my guests, I noticed that everyone was peeling the prawns and removing the head before eating, and frankly, making a mess. I commented to my guests that it was acceptable and delicious to eat the shell and head of a prawn (or shrimp) if it had been grilled or fried beforehand, causing the exoskeleton to take on a crunchy, potato-chip like quality. They looked at me like I was pulling a prank, so I picked up a prawn from the platter and chomped down on the head. They reacted as if I had just performed a crude party trick.

Their confusion is understandable. Most shell-on prawn (or likely, and more frequently, shrimp) that we encounter in the U.S. has been boiled – creating a chewy, flexible shell that is easy to peel off, but unappetizing to eat. Think shrimp cocktail or peel-and-eat happy hour specials at your favorite seafood bar. However, when properly prepared, the head and shell add a crunchy texture and hyper-shrimpy flavor to even the most basic of preparations. The notion of eating an animal’s entire head will turn some people’s stomachs but, in my eyes, the head of a prawn is close to delicacy status.

If you feel like experimenting with prawns in the comfort of your home they can be purchased in Chicago, head intact, at Isaacson & Stein Fish Company at Halsted and Fulton Market. This aforementioned sriracha-based marinade is a nice preparation. If you prefer less heat, try them in a little garlic butter spiked with citrus.

Three of the best restaurants in Chicago to experience the magic of prawn heads are all conveniently located within blocks of each other in the West Loop. The best of the lot might be the grilled prawns with spring onion salsa verde at La Sirena Clandestina. A base of fragrant olive oil and fresh, spicy salsa provide an earthy counterpart and play foil to a perfectly grilled quartet of prawns. A fantastic gateway dish for a prawn head virgin.

A few blocks south, at the flashy Nellcôte, a small plate of wood grilled prawns is served with meyer lemon and lobster oil. I found them delicate and flavorful but not as soul-stirring as I was expecting from something served with lobster oil. Head here If you’re most comfortable in a high-ceilinged, sceney dining room. I happen to prefer the nonchalance of the room and staff at La Sirena.

Embeya, a high-end Vietnamese restaurant from up-and-coming chef Thai Dang, offers the prawn dish most worthy of a full meal. Crispy noodles are served with sweet peppers, basil, and prawns in a broth so perfect it had me scrambling to find spoon. The umami bath these prawns are swimming in makes them burst with flavor. Enjoy with a simple, dry, Asahi beer and your day will be made.

Head-on prawns can be found outside of the food mecca that is the West Loop, too. The Bristol, located in Bucktown and one of the city’s most consistently perfect restaurants, serves their prawns split down the middle – a perfect preparation to ensure they become sufficiently drowned in a pool of rich, anchovy butter.

Fat Rice in Logan Square is my favorite restaurant to open in the last year and prawns play a supporting role in their eponymous dish. Meant to be shared, the fat rice is a deceptively large stone bowl filled with sofrito-scented rice that crisps up along the sides of the bowl into a chewy, delicious treat. Piled high atop this rice is an all-star roster of chicken, roast pork, linguiça, salted duck, tea egg, littleneck clam, and, yes, a few head-on prawns to stare you down as you drool. Bring a few friends along to share this delicacy and amaze them with your new party trick when you pluck the prawn from the bowl and bite down on the head. They may initially be shocked, but use it as an opportunity to take them to school with your newfound knowledge of this delicacy. Or… maybe don’t – it just means more heads for you.

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