Shrimp have developed a reputation as the appetizers of the sea. They’re an ideal finger food, easily dipped into cocktail sauce, and if you eat enough of them, it can constitute a meal. Shrimp is even more popular in America than tuna, with Americans eating an average of four pounds of the delicious little crustaceans every year.
Few people, however, ask for prawn cocktail or prawn scampi. While prawns seem virtually identical to shrimp, they seem to have languished in popular culture. So what’s the difference between shrimp and prawns?
According to Food & Wine, both shrimp and prawns are decapods, each with 10 legs and an external skeleton. But that’s largely where the similarities end. Prawns are in the decapod suborder Dendrobranchiata, with claws on three pairs of legs, large secondary pincers. Their gills branch out and their bodies—which are typically larger than a shrimp’s—are less curved, and they mostly come from freshwater habitats.
Shrimp, in contrast, have a more distinctive bend to their bodies thanks to the second segment of their shell overlapping the first and third segments. They also have one fewer pair of claws plus plate-like gills and large front pincers, and typically, they come from saltwater environments.
Once they’re out of their shells, those details become irrelevant. Shrimp and prawns have a nearly identical taste, though some people might be able to detect a slightly sweeter flavor to prawns. Shrimp has become more of a catch-all term for both crustaceans in northern states, while southern states and other countries like the UK and Ireland favor the term prawn. So while you might be getting one, the other, or both in restaurants, in terms of linguistics, prawn taco just doesn’t have the same ring to it.
Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A version of this story ran in 2019; it has been updated for 2023.