The Taste Bud: Shrimp cocktail (without the cocktail sauce)

Nov 9, 2011 at 6:00 am

To most Americans, a shrimp cocktail means six or so large shrimp perched on the edge of a martini glass with a lemon wedge and a large dollop of mild cocktail sauce inside the glass for dipping. Shrimp cocktails have even been served on iceberg lettuce, with oyster crackers on the side. Oooh, fan-cy.

There’s also the version that is even simpler, and which can today be bought in jars in most any supermarket. This version consists of small shrimp, sans tails, mixed right in with the cocktail sauce. One early recipe (circa 1909) I found on the InterWeb calls for 100 “river shrimp” (really?) mixed with tomato catsup, hard-boiled eggs and spices. Hmm.

Anyway, shrimp cocktail often precedes a big dinner, and it’s not uncommon to pay $8 or more for this appetizer. It’s refreshing, to be sure, but it barely gets you started, and it isn’t terribly challenging to the palate.

What I find annoying is this: Despite the evidence that man has been blending seafood with spicy sauce for quite some time, how on earth did ketchup come into the equation? For French fries, sure, but seafood?

Some theorize that the ketchup/cocktail sauce inclusion was probably based on one of two things: It was used to cover up not-so-fresh seafood that didn’t taste great (maybe because it came from a river?), or it was simply due to people who wanted to eat seafood but who really didn’t like the taste or texture all that much. The tomato sauce simply helped them choke down the shellfish or crustaceans. Wussies.

Personally, I prefer the Mexican version of the shrimp cocktail — and for those who have never tried one, this Taste Bud’s for you.

The Mexican version is sometimes prepared like ceviche, wherein the shrimp is “cooked” in lime and/or lemon juice rather than steamed, with the citrus causing the proteins in the seafood to become “denatured,” in a process that’s similar to how an egg changes when it’s boiled. Other times, the prawns are simmered until tender.

And with the Mexican version, instead of the plump shrimp being perched on the edge of the glass, they are immersed in a blend of ingredients that far outdistance simple cocktail sauce. That’s where the fun begins: What sets this version of the shrimp cocktail (or “coctel de camaron”) apart is that there isn’t nearly as much tomato sauce involved — instead, it’s a blend of ketchup or salsa with lime juice, diced tomatoes, diced onions, diced peppers, chopped cilantro, and often some hot sauce. Sometimes other ingredients are involved, like carrots or celery. And the best part? Plenty of fresh, chopped avocado.

It’s almost like a bloody mary, but with meat.

They are fun to eat, too. You can fish out the plump, tender shrimp and avocado chunks with a spoon and eat those at will, and the rest can be scooped with chips and devoured like salsa. Oh, and don’t be afraid to add some extra heat if you so desire — I recently enjoyed one of these cocktails at El Nopal on Zorn Avenue, and added some El Yucateco habanero sauce for an extra kick. Delicious.

It is also worth noting that at Mexican restaurants, the shrimp cocktail typically isn’t listed as an appetizer or starter — it is considered a meal in itself and is listed in the seafood section of the menu. In addition, the Mexican versions aren’t much pricier than the Americanized versions, usually costing around $10. But there’s plenty more for your money — I counted 16 shrimp in my cocktail at El Nopal, and I walked away feeling like I’d eaten a fair-sized meal.

The best part? Based on the flavor, I am certain that the shrimp I was served did not come from the Ohio River. On the other hand, “The Denatured River Shrimp” would make a really fun name for a zydeco band.